Other Bells

A bell can take many forms and not all of them hang in towers. In fact, the earliest extant bell artifacts antiquity has handed down suggest bells were an essential part of daily life. The ancient Greeks used bells as warning systems between sentries on guard and garrison outposts. The book of Exodus details the robe of the high priest was adorned in bells. In Roman lands, bells were hung around the necks of livestock to more easily locate strays. In the ancient East, bells were important aspects of religious and imperial ceremonies.

A young Vedic priest rings a bell as part of the Hindu yagna fire ritual. 

The Victorians emphasized the style of a bell and wrought intricate designs from sterling silver, gold, crystal, and porcelain. These were part of daily life inside the home. Both handheld bells (a piece of the lady’s dressing table set) and wired service bells could summon attendants, announce dinner, or communicate across the household. These are now sought-after collectibles. 

Bells appeared and continue to be used in orchestras, pipe organs, and clocks. Bells were staples of the American farm, mounted on boats and trains, topped schoolhouses and town halls, and called firemen to infernos. Handbells, cowbells, sleigh bells, and even door bells are woven into the fabric of our culture.

Farm bells

Bells were essential fixtures of the American farm. Long before radios and mobile phones, it was difficult to summon the family to the main dwelling or call ranch hands back from across large, sprawling lands and fields. To help, farmers would often install a single bell to make such a clamor that it could be heard from many acres away. Whether suspended from the porch just outside the kitchen door or mounted on a post out back, the toll of a bell would signal lunch or quitting time – the two best times of the working day.

American farmers aren’t the only ones to have employed the use of farm bells. Some of the earliest examples are barn-top bells from Scandinavia. But the silhouette of a weathered iron bell is part of the intense country nostalgia connected with American farms. One ad within an early Sears catalog proclaimed that “every farm, no matter how small, should have a good bell.” Bells also served the vital role of alerting anyone within earshot to an emergency, like a barn fire.

An ad for assorted metal bells in the Sears, Roebuck and Co. Spring 1912 (No.124) catalog lists farm bell options from 35 to 90 lbs. that cost just a couple dollars each.

How can you distinguish a post-mount farm bell from other bells, like a school bell or fire bell? The best rule of thumb is to gauge the size. An antique farm bell is typically between 10 and 20 inches in diameter and weighs between 25 and 100 lbs. This is smaller than other utilitarian bells. With considerably less noise on a pre-industrial farm, a bell didn’t have to ring as loudly to be heard as within a busy city. A smaller bell also better suited a farmer’s budget and could be delivered more easily to far-flung locations.

Farm bells are a treasured find for antique and salvage hunters. To check whether a bell might be original or replica, carefully examine how it’s made. Newer bells are often cast in two parts and then welded together, so you’ll likely see a seam down opposite sides of a replica farm bell. Newer bells will also have less obvious signs of wear around the mouth of the bell than originals. There are still companies who make proper farm bells in the traditional method, so even if you can’t find a century-old farm bell, you can still bring a piece of country sensibility to your home.

Rail and ship bells

From around 1840 onward, a bell was standard issue on steam locomotives traversing the American countryside. Mounted to the top of the boiler or smokebox, the bell was meant to alert people and animals (like the much-maligned bison) of an approaching train. Most train bells are between 11 and 17 inches in diameter, but possess few identifying markers to connect them with a specific train. Train bells were therefore easier to repurpose or reuse as new engines were added to the tracks. 

Similarly, ship bells are common features on riverboats, warships, and passenger cruises. Bells would be hung from a mast or mounted in a prominent position on an upper deck to signal crew and passengers. These bells would broadcast the time, announce whether an important personage or officer had boarded the vessel, or indicate the position of the ship in heavy fog. To honor a sailor who had died, a bell would toll resolutely eight times – a pattern that denotes the end of the watch.

The brass bell on the USS Constitution at Charlestown Naval Yard in Boston, Massachusetts. The ship, nicknamed "Old Ironsides," is the oldest and most storied commissioned warship in the U.S. Navy.

Traditionally, the ship's name and year it was launched are engraved or cast onto the surface of the bell. In the event of a shipwreck, when more vulnerable materials like wood are swept away or degrade into the ocean floor, the bell often provides the only positive means of identification.

Handheld bells

Bells come in myriad shapes, sizes, designs, sounds, uses, and histories. Handheld bells in particular are fascinating collectables. Whether made of brass, bronze, ceramic, glass, crystal, porcelain, wood, or less traditional materials, each handheld bell tells a unique story about who created it, where it came from, and how it was used.