Bitten by the Bell Bug
July 18, 2015 at 1:30 am #12596
I recently acquired in Virginia what appears to be a school-marm’s bell dating from the 19th or early 20th century. It is brass, beautifully burnished, well lacquered, 10 inches high including its wooden handle, and weighs just under 2 lbs. It emits a strong, clear and pleasingly reverberating ring that could wake Lazarus.
I have two questions I’m hoping forum participants can help me with:
Question 1: Is the bell an original or a reproduction? It is so sturdily made it seems to scream “antique.” Yet it has no foundry mark or date on it. One possible clue: The inside of the bell has a finish that is rough to the touch. However, the area struck by the cast-iron clapper–a quarter–inch wide band around the interior– is smooth. I am wondering whether this smooth strike area is part of the bell’s sound engineering like the beadlines on the exterior. Or is it proof of longevity, which is my hope? Have countless strikes of the clapper over the decades most likely worn away the original rough finish?
Question 2: The bell has a No. “9″ on its shoulder. Can someone explain what that number signifies? Does it indicate the tone of the bell and suggest that it may have been used as a handbell in change ringing? If the answer is “yes,” anything you can offer on No. 9 bells will be welcome.
Thanks in advance for any insights. I know little about bells but if there is such a thing as a bell bug, I may have been bitten by one. This handsome and throaty (old?) bell has captured my fancy.
July 27, 2015 at 2:35 am #18032
Geepars, aka: Bitten by the bell bug!
Is there any chance of getting photos? Side, top, inside bottom? That all helps. How the number 9 is placed on the bell (where exactly, how (embossed, stamped, molded in, etc.) all helps with identifying it. Here are some of the things we look at/for, to give you an idea of details to find out!
How and what type of ‘handle’ is on the bell (and how it is attached) helps greatly. Different attachments are significant to different dates and locations. You mention it is wood, can you tell what species? If it’s for ‘ringing’, as in a musical number, then the attachment would have to be very strong compared to the ‘occasional’ ringing school marm!
The metal bell shape can usually tell us something too, along with any markings / toolings that might be visible inside and out. (this is all why photos help so much!)
What is the diameter and height of the bell itself? (I think you gave bell and handle height together?)
How is the clapper attached? (that can indicate age too!)
Are there any wear marks to indicate usage?
Did you test it in multiple spots with a strong magnet to see if any parts are less noble iron, brass plated, maybe?
The number 9 could be the manufacturer’s bell size, or the mold number used, or a few other things like that. But a few more details are needed to be sure.
What you have described so far, matches a Bevin hand bell style so I would also check http://bevinbells.com/ to see if any of these match yours!
Remember: ‘It’s not the destination, it’s the trip!’ (Which in ‘bell talk’ becomes; It’s the memories the bell provides you either; in the search or research of it, the family memories it invokes, or the history you find, that makes the bell important!) So have fun with the search, that’s where most of the enjoyment is!
July 30, 2015 at 1:03 am #18033
A ton of thanks, Mr. Middleton, for your generous offer to help. I am traveling at the moment. But I’ll get back to you soon with photos and the additional information you have requested.
August 5, 2015 at 2:13 am #18034Carolyn WhitlockParticipant
August 5, 2015 at 3:25 pm #18035
Thanks again, Mr. Middleton, for your welcome to the site and your generous offer to help with my quest for information about this bell’s age and function. With Carolyn’s generous assistance, the photos you requested have now been posted. I will attempt to answer your questions:
1. The number 9 appears to me to be molded in. You can make your own appraisal from the photo of the shoulder of the bell (which also gives you a closeup look at how beautifully burnished this bell is). I am wondering whether the 9 denotes the bell’s tone, size or function?
2. As to what kind of wood the handle is, I cannot be certain. But I believe it to be hickory. I’ve looked at hickory handled tools in Google images and this handle resembles them. But wood can be stained to look like something it isn’t, of course.
3. As to how strongly attached the handle is to the bell’s bowl, it looks very sturdy to me. That brass tube to which it attaches is just over an inch tall and seems to have been cast as part of the bell itself. The handle appears to be screwed into it. You will note pliers marks on the wood as seen in one photo.
4. The mouth of the bell measures 4 ½ inches across. The bowl is 3 3/4 inches high, which does not include the 1 1/4 -inch tube into which the handle is inserted. The handle is 5 inches long. Altogether, the bell stands 10 inches high on a desktop.
5. The clapper is cast iron. The upper end is bent into a hairpin shape around a little loop of metal at the top of the bowl.
6. As to wear marks, I’m told old bells often have damage to the lip. That is not the case here. There are only a few tiny dark spots on the exterior. Much of the outside of the bell has a textured surface, which mutes the shine and darkens the brass beautifully. Everything is protected by a heavy lacquer. As for the interior of the bowl, you will note that it is rough to the touch. But the area struck by the clapper-–a 1/4 inch wide band around the interior-–is smooth, as you can see from the way it shines in one of the photos. My question: Is this smoothness the likely result of countless strikes over the decades that have worn away the original finish? Or is it part of the sound engineering like the beadlines on the exterior?
7. At your suggestion, I applied a magnet to every part of the bell. The only part that is magnetic is the clapper. Everything else looks like solid brass of the highest quality.
8. I reviewed the bells at bevinbells.com. My bell bears some resemblance to the handbells they make. But it is no exact match to say the least. I note that Bevin has been at this almost 200 years. Could my bell have been made by them long ago with a mold long discarded? Might they be able to ID it, do you think?
9. My mother taught in a one-room schoolhouse 90 years ago in rural Minnesota and probably used a bell somewhat like this one. Maybe that’s one reason it has caught my fancy. Any light you or others can shed on its possible origins and history will be greatly appreciated–and I do mean greatly.
August 5, 2015 at 7:46 pm #18036
What a treasure! I believe you have a genuine circa late 1800s – early 1900s hand bell. These are reproduced, but the new bells tend to be more polished and don’t show a striker wear pattern. The style with the nipple top is very much that era and provided the extra support for the bar hanger underneath that holds the clapper. Not all bells have / show a lot of wear on the rim – It depends on how/where it was set down and it’s a small area to show marks anyway. At best you might see a dent if it was dropped from a height. But you do see a very distinct wear where the clapper strikes the bell inside, showing quite a bit of use. The clapper itself (oblong not round) is also indicative of that era as is the molded in bar hanger. It was very common for bells of that age to have iron clappers (cheaper and easier to bend to attach).
The blueish color inside comes from the copper component in the alloy starting to oxidize. Oxidization takes place when the copper, in the presence of moisture, reacts with air (oxygen). Bells of this type typically don’t see a lot of water (It’s not a bucket after all! 😉 ) and are stored bell down, so any water drains out. Plus the copper is in an alloy so most is fixed to another metal. For it to start oxidizing it is either very very old or has been stored wet for a long time. (for example, some copper pipes I installed in a small bathroom, took 5 years before they started showing any corrosion!)
The handle does not show as much wear (perhaps it simply doesn’t show well in the photos) but from your comments about the tool marks on it (something the manufacturer would never have stood for!) I suspect it’s a replacement one anyway – so is newer. Likely the older one was damaged over time, not an unusual occurrence. Drying of the wood causes cracking and add the pressure of swinging that weight of metal from it…
I suspect the “9” is stamped in, because it’s heavier in embossing on the top of the 9 while the tail is not as deep. It’s hard to hold a stamp square to a curved surface. If it was molded, then they would likely have carved the mold number to the same depth all around. (As it’s harder to carve a mold in relief, molded numbers usually stick out, not in, anyway.) I think you are going to find that the number likely is the marketing size of the bell (roughly 9 inches including the handle) – Basically their number 9 model.
I believe this to be a single bell, for ringing for attention and not a musical bell choir form. Two reasons: If you do a you tube search you will see that musical bells of this nature are rung with the handle pointing down. This way the ringer can control the clapper swing (very important to get a single clean note!). Reason 1) such a bell would need a central attachment point – if you held your bell ‘upside down’ the clapper could easily slide side to side on the mounting bar, resulting in all sorts of unwanted rings and noises. Further, they want it to hit at the best resonance point of the bell – which a sloppy mounting would not guarantee. Reason 2) the sloppiness described above would mean that the bright band where the clapper strikes the bell would be wider, as the additional slop would give more striking surfaces. Your strike band is quite narrow.
Now for a treat. Have a look at the first photo of school bells on this site. Particularly the second from the right. Look familiar?
Enjoy your bell! I think you have a neat one!
August 5, 2015 at 9:12 pm #18037
I was about to write that only Sherlock Holmes could look at my bell and deduce more about it than you have. But it strikes me that, of course, that is wrong. Old Sherlock knew a lot about blood stains, barkless dogs and what have you, but I don’t remember him contributing much if anything on the subject of bells! Your awesome detective work sets a standard he likely couldn’t meet. I paid $45 for this bell and it would seem I got very good value. Not that I have any wish sell it. It looks fine right where it is, sitting on a desk at my elbow glimmering in the late afternoon light. Thanks very much for giving me the benefit of your knowledge.
August 5, 2015 at 11:51 pm #18038
You are very welcome! I agree – you got a great bargain.
I also think a nice writeup about your mom and how she used a bell similar to this (and where / when) etc. would look great with it. Especially if you have a photo of her in the classroom (double especially with the bell)! [note: but mention it is a similar bell and not the actual one she had, keep the history real!] That adds a personal flavor to it and puts a piece of tangible history in the hands of your family for future generations. It makes it more meaningful, more real, and who knows? It might even become a family heirloom!
I look forward to seeing your next bell acquisition!
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