Antique Dinner Bells: History of These Suppertime Treasures

Updated May 24, 2022
cottage house dinner bell

Back in a time when daily meals were carefully planned and the entire family attended, dinner bells were incredibly common. From dainty Victorian silver table bells to large country farm bells, from unique salt and pepper shaker set dinner bells to Western iron triangles, each one was treasured by the family that it summoned to the day's final meal in years past.

Two Major Antique Dinner Bells

Antique dinner bells came in two major styles; large outdoor bells and dainty indoor bells. Each of these bells served the same basic function - to call people to the table for a meal. However, they were featured in vastly different socioeconomic and regional contexts, but they're all collectible just the same.

Rustic Outdoor Dinner Bells

Cast Iron Dinner Bell

Outdoor dinner bells were used on large homesteads, in rustic regions, and small communities/country businesses to call people in from the outdoors to eat dinner. Generally made out of cast iron and other hearty metals, these dinner bells were stabilized in two different ways. They were either affixed to the side of a building and hung beneath a frame (sometimes featuring a pulley system for ringing the bell or just a drop-down rope/chain to manual ring), or they were encased in their own sedentary frames on the ground or above a building (usually in the tower or steeple). Those that weren't connected to the house were usually not connected because of how large they were, and the most common image of these bells today is that of antique farm bells.

These outdoor bells were built to last, and the only significant damage they incurred over time is rusting caused by inclement weather. However, with proper cleaning, these hefty bells can be put to use right away.

Note: In today's marketplace, there are many replicas of these farm dinner bells. To help determine if a farm bell is a replica or an original, check the casting edge. Older bells'll show wear and a thinning of the casting edge due to age and use. Antique bells were generally cast as one piece and won't have a parting line from a mold. Newer bells are usually cast using a two part mold, many antique replica bells also employ the typical design of post mounted farm dinner bell as well.

Delicate Indoor Dinner Bells

Crystal dinner bell

Indoor dinner bells have been around for hundreds of years, most frequently used by the upper echelon of society as a demarcation between aristocratic dining conventions and lower class meals. Yet, these hand bells (which encompass a long handle and usual bell underneath) of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries were crafted out of a wide variety of expensive materials, including:

  • Bone china
  • Porcelain
  • Glass
  • Crystal
  • Silver

In particular, collectors gravitate towards late-Victorian dinner bells with their highly decorative designs. During a period of massive wealth accumulation and an influx of 'new money' families across the Western world, these dinner bells grew increasingly opulent featuring things like detailed repoussé designs, and world-renowned designers made their own luxury dinner bells for the social elite. For instance, the ever popular Tiffany & Co. (who was already known to create specialized dinnerware) made their own silver dinner bells for the Mr. Moneybags of metropolitan society.

Additionally, as the 19th century turned into the 20th and mechanical developments infiltrated household items, dinner bells began exhibiting new technology. For example, this 19th century tabletop dinner bell used a spring loading mechanism to ring. After all, how could the social elite be expected to ring their own bells when the bell itself could do it for them?

How Much Do Antique Dinner Bells Cost?

rustic dinner bell with squirrel decoration

Antique dinner bells vary quite widely in how much they cost; simply, it depends on what kind of bell you want to purchase. Large farm dinner bells or school bells can be in the $500-$2,000 range because of their size and the amount that it costs to ship them. Similarly, luxury Gilded Age dinner bells made out of valuable precious metals by designers can be worth $1,000-$5.000, depending on the net value of the materials themselves and their cultural significance. A dinner bell from a prominent family like the Astors would be far more valuable than one purchase by an anonymous upper middle class family.

Seemingly the cheapest dinner bells, costing just around $10-$80, are either rusted/worn outdoor dinner bells that were affixed to the outside of buildings like homes, taverns, and inns, as well as the more simple and functionally designed brass and wooden handle examples. These are also the easiest to find, and their abundance on the market makes them more affordable than ones that're rarer to procure.

For example, here's how a few of the different antique dinner bells have recently priced at auction:

Ring in Dinner Time

Adding an antique dinner bell to your home can be a perfect excuse to break out the heirloom china and have a fancy dinner with family and friends. Whether the compact size works best for calling your children away from their video game consoles or the large dinner bells bring your cows back in from the pasture, there're a ton of unique ways to incorporate these antique tools into your everyday life.

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Antique Dinner Bells: History of These Suppertime Treasures