Bells larger than 20″ in diameter at the opening (called the mouth) are normally made of bronze, iron or steel. If a magnet doesn’t stick to it, it’s bronze. If smaller than 20″ and the magnet doesn’t stick, it could be made of brass, in which case it is likely a railroad, fire engine or ship’s bell. The shape of the bell and the way it is mounted normally identify if it is one of those. Brass is made of copper and zinc; bronze is of copper and tin. Bronze has a deep melodious sound, brass a higher shrill, penetrating sound – a good attention getter.
The large bells found most often were made by the C. S. Bell Co of Hillsboro, Ohio, near Cincinnati. They are out of the bell business now, but were still making dinner bells until the early 1990’s. Their school and church bells only said “Steel Alloy Church Bell” (or “school bell”) on one side of the yoke (the part at the top to which the bell is attached), and had the name of the firm on the other side. If it said only “Steel alloy bell” on one side and the other side was left blank, it was a bell they made but sold through another firm’s catalog (Sears, Roebuck, Henry Field Seeds, etc.). This firm made up to 20,000 bells each year during their peak production in the 1880s, and they continued to make large church bells into the 1970s. The name stood for the founder, Charles S. Bell, an immigrant Scotsman who also made farm machinery, and the firm was run by three generations of Bells, the last being Virginia Bell. Many iron and steel bells had no inscription.
If iron and steel bells were the “Fords” bronze bells were the “Cadillacs.” A well-made bronze bell will hold its “hum note” for up to a minute after being struck because bronze is more dense than iron. The name of the firm that cast a bronze bell will normally be cast into the side of the bell itself, rather than on the yoke. The two molds used to make a bronze bell must be destroyed in the casting process, while molds for iron bells are used over and over. This results in more labor cost in a bronze bell, and the metal itself is considerably more expensive. Because of this high cost, most small rural church congregations could only afford a steel or iron bell. The bronze bells are more typically found in larger cities and towns. There is practically no limit to the size a bronze bell can be cast. The world’s largest is the Czar Kolokol outside the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia at 27 feet in diameter. The Peace Bell in Newport, Kentucky is 12 feet in diameter at a weight of 60,000 pounds. Large bronze bells are often cast with much bias relief ornamentation.
The seven largest producers of bronze bells in the U.S. were the Vanduzen Buckeye Bell Foundry of Cincinnati; Meneely of Troy, N.Y.; Meneely of West Troy, N.Y. (different firms); Jones and Co Troy Bell Foundry, of Troy, NY; McShane of Baltimore, Md.; and two Stuckstede firms of St. Louis, Mo. Each of these firms’ names changed slightly over the years, usually as the family members in ownership changed. They all made quality bells. If dinner bells are included, there were over 350 different firms casting large bells in the U.S. of iron, steel or bronze.
The statement that a large bell contains silver (most commonly heard from someone trying to sell a bell) is a myth. As bronze ages to near 80 years, its color will change from a golden hue to silver (actually more like nickel). As the copper in the metal oxidizes and is washed off by dew and the atmosphere, flecks of incompletely amalgamated tin work to the surface. Then, if the bell is polished or cleaned, it takes on the finish of a slightly dull tin can. Voilà! Silver! Antique dealers also like to refer to it as “German Silver,” although that is not accurate.
German Silver is the name for various alloys of copper, zinc, and nickel, sometimes also containing lead or tin. It does not contain silver at all. It varies in composition, the proportions of the three metals changed according to the intended use of the product. A small amount of iron is sometimes added to make it whiter and harder. German silver is extensively used because of its hardness, toughness, and resistance to corrosion in marine fittings, tableware, hospital and restaurant equipment, and some plumbing fixtures.