Bell from SS Commodore
August 1, 2009 at 5:42 pm #11206AnonymousInactive
Ellen asks us:
A local sport diver has donated a ship’s bell to the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse museum, where I am curator. The bell is from an 1897 wreck off the coast of Daytona Beach. The bell has no markings, but the ship was the SS Commodore, a filibuster vessel on her way to Cuba when she sank in a storm. The shipyard that produced the Commodore is not known. Her engines were made by Neafie & Levy in Philadelphia, and the hull was probably made near Camden, NJ. The Commodore may have been originally destined to be a menhaden boat. Since there were so many bell foundries on the east coast,I wonder if it is possible to identify the maker of this bell. I know very little about bells, and I’m curious about what appears to be plating on the surface of this one. It doesn’t really look like nickel. It’s more like a chromed surface. I’m familiar with nautical items that have been plated to resist corrosion, but I’m not sure what would typically be used on a bell like this.
The bell is 6″ high and the diameter is 7 7/8″. It’s brass. The mounting bracket is also non-ferrous.
Ellen Henry, MFA
Ponce de Leon Inlet Light Station
September 17, 2009 at 3:00 am #14815GarryParticipant
It’s a very interesting bell. I believe that chrome plating was invented in the 1930’s, so if this is from a wreak of the 1800’s that’s definitely not it. Nickel plating was an Italian invention of about 1805, and Silver plating in the 1830’s (English I believe). The only processes I know of, of that nature back then therefore, is silver or nickel plating. Silver can corrode / dissolve in salt water to an ‘ide (ie sulphide) type material which can range in colors including white, while Nickel goes yellow to brown to black I believe (It’s been a ‘fair while’ since my high school chemistry class!) . Because silver generally only ‘surface corrodes’ that is; the corrosion stops at the first layer of material protecting the rest, it was used on ship bells.
Your bell appears to show a white residue on the outside with a blue/green color inside. The blue/green is from copper corrosion – a component of the brass.
An interesting conundrum then. Silver seems a bit ostentatious and expensive for a vessel of that nature but the nickel would probably be almost as expensive back then and I don’t believe it was normally used on bells. I wonder if they perhaps ‘liberated’ it from some where?
I suspect that you have a brass bell that was silver plated for protection and show. Your local jeweler could possibly tell you for sure, as they have tests for silver content. Of course If it turns out to be chrome, perhaps your diver friend mixed up where it came from. 😉
Here is an interesting web site that talks about conserving silver items: http://nautarch.tamu.edu/class/anth605/File13.htm
Hope this helps!
September 18, 2009 at 1:25 am #14816hjlong3Participant
This bell looks like it was nickel plated bronze. I have a modern bell that is almost exactly like it without the plating and was made by Blake Valleau of MI in the 1970s. It was sold as a Yacht Bell. This bell certainly could have been from a filibuster boat. There were numerous foundries in Philadelphia that could have cast this bell. Many shipyards that had bronze foundries (propellers and ships fittings) cast these small bells for their boats. They often were cast of “Admiralty Bronze” rather than “Bell Metal”.
Harry Long, MD
September 18, 2009 at 1:03 pm #14817GarryParticipant
Again you are a wealth of excellent knowledge Harry! Thank you for sharing.
Quick question if I may:
I noticed that the bell had an off white corrosion on it. My understanding is that nickel normally corrodes to a black color – is it something with the salt water reaction that causes it to go white instead? That’s what confused me.
September 19, 2009 at 6:36 pm #14814hjlong3Participant
Nickel chloride is a light green and most nickel-plated items that I have seen that were weathered had a dull grey patina, probably from oxides. I have not seen a black or dark brown color on nickel-plated items. Coinage nickels can develop a dark grey to black color when exposed to sulfuric acid. I suspect that the color has a great deal to do with the salt that is formed in the patina. I seriously doubt that a working boat would have had a silver-plated bell. It would have been either un-plated bronze or would have been nickel-plated.
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