An antique farm bell next to your back door is an accessory that's sure to cause waves of nostalgia. A century ago, long before cell phones, farmers' wives used these bells to call the family into the house for mealtime, and the bell's tone would echo throughout the fields and could be heard several acres away. Although these bells aren't as needed as they once were, collectors and preservationists love finding these old relics and bringing them back to the farm settings where they belong.
Parts of a Basic Bell
All bells are made basically the same way and have the same parts. These include:
- Bead line - A raised line around the bell, which is both decorative and functional.
- Clapper - The small part that hangs inside the bell and strikes the sides when rung.
- Crown - The piece at the top of the bell that allows it to be hung from a chain or rope.
- Head - The top of the bell where the crown attaches and the shoulders begin.
- Lip - The edge around the mouth of the bell, often decorative.
- Mouth - The open part of the bell on the bottom.
- Shoulder - Found just below the head, this is the upper, curved part of the bell.
- Sound ring - The area between the bead line and the lip of the bell.
- Waist - The center of the bell where it begins to flare out into the traditional bell shape.
- Yoke - The piece that the bell attaches to.
How Bells Were Made
Bellfounding dates to as early as the fourth or fifth century in Europe. In fact, some of the first farm bells have been found on the top of Scandinavian barns, where they were rung to call the farmers in from the fields at the end of the day.
Traditionally, bells were made of a special bronze, consisting of about 23% tin. This alloy is better known as bell metal and creates the best tones. When created, these bells would be cast, mouth down, in a special two-part mold. The mold would be buried in a casting pit and then the hot bell metal would be poured into the mold and cooled. Today bells are most often cast in two parts and then soldered together as the conveniences of modern manufacturing have eliminated the need for as many handmade elements.
Identifying an Antique Farm Bell
Bells were used for many things in the past. There were church bells, fire bells, dinner bells, and school bells, as well as farm bells. It can be difficult to identify them if you're not an experienced bell collector, as antique bells tend to all look very similar to one another.
Size is one of the important factors in determining what type of antique bell you've got.
- Church bells were most often very large and placed in the bell tower of the church.
- Fire bells were often 30 inches or more in diameter.
- School bells usually were 20 to 30 inches.
- Farm bells were often 10 to 20 inches because the sound did not have to travel as far.
It's easy to find a replica farm bell, and these replicas can be artificially aged to look properly from the period. However, these replica bells aren't worth much at all and it's important to be able to identify the antique from the reproduction if you don't want to end up with an expensive imitation. Look for these markers to distinguish between an antique and reproduction bell:
- The edges of the bell will have become soft and irregular over time.
- The edges will show heavy wear and the rest of the bell will also look worn and seasoned.
- Antique bells will not have a casting or parting line. The new bells are typically cast in two pieces, whereas antique farm bells were cast as one piece.
Cleaning Your Bell
Once you find a bell that you love, you may want to clean it if it's become tarnished over time. It's important that the bell be cleaned without marring the patina that's built up over so many years of use. Use a brass cleaner like Brasso and test it on an inner edge of the bell where it won't be apparent if there is a problem. Once the bell is clean, a regular dusting with a soft cloth should keep it in perfect condition.
Where to Find Farm Bells
Finding an old farm bell's often a matter of luck. You may find one at the local thrift shop or a garage sale quite inexpensively, or you may only be able to locate one at the local antique store. Some of the ease of finding a farm bell will depend on where you live, as they may be easier to find in rural areas since there'd be a greater abundance of them in the area.
It's a good idea to try to find one locally because of the weight and the cost of shipping that comes from it. Ask a few antiques dealers in your area to keep an eye out for what you are looking for. If you can't find what you want in your area, then you can try the following online sites. Be sure to read the fine print, make sure you understand the return policy and guarantees, and check into the cost of shipping. If you have questions, be sure to ask them before you buy.
- eBay - Ebay is always a great place to find almost anything you want. There are plenty of farm bells in their inventory, but not all of them are antique, so be careful to read through the listing in it's entirety and ask questions if you're unsure about anything.
- Newel Antiques - Newel Antiques carries a wide variety of antiques, including farm bells.
- Rubylane - Rubylane has a plethora of antiques of different types, and will occasionally have an antique farm bell in its collection.
- Tias - Tias also carries an ever changing variety of antiques.
You may need to check an antique store often. The antiques that they have changed, sometimes at a rapid rate, and just because you don't see what you are looking for one day doesn't mean it won't be there the next.
Antique Farm Bell Values to Expect
Interestingly, these large practical objects that were typically found on farm lands around the United States can bring in a hefty sum at auction. What seems like an unassuming and simple tool to some is actually an impressive score to others. These rustic bells regularly bring in a few hundred dollars at auction, with those having the least amount of rusting and all of their parts in-tact fetching the highest prices. For instance, these are a few examples of antique farm bells that've recently sold at auction:
Add a Nostalgic Touch of Country Style to Your Home
No matter where you choose to display your antique bell, it's sure to add a touch of country warmth and hospitality to your home. Farm bells are still a great way to call the kids in for the day, no matter where you live. If you decide to keep your bell outside, you'll need to ensure that it's protected from the elements as much as possible to help maintain a beautiful tone and excellent condition for decades to come.