Since at least the 18th century in the American colonies, school bells have guided students throughout their days, and the history and memories of those clarion antiques still attract collectors. While locating old school house bells takes time, effort, and money, the bells offer listeners a rare chance to experience the past through sound.
Ringing in History
Bells have been for thousands of years to warn people of fire or flood, toll for deaths, and entertain listeners at holidays. school house bells have been part of the American soundscape for centuries.
- While 18th and 19th U.S. schools were often held in private homes, universities, colleges, and boarding schools had many students on their campuses and used bells to notify students about meals, chapel services, and class times.
- In rural areas, school bells could also be used to announce the death of a local person by tolling once for each year of their life.
- One-room school houses thrived in the 19th century and served many rural or isolated regions, and the bells were considered a status symbol, along with a belfry.
- There were more than 190,000 U.S. rural schools in 1919, and many used bells to call students to class.
school house bells are usually between 60 and 100+ years old, making them antiques under certain tax laws.
Parts of a School House Bell
Bells are hollow instruments that are sounded by striking. While bells can assume many shapes, from cones to cylinders, the most commonly recognized school bell is one that is wider at the bottom than at the top. Some experts argue this is done to achieve certain sounds, but it may be more about tradition than science. Bells have several basic parts.
- Bowl, which is the widest section of the bell's "skirt"
- Waist, or narrow section above the skirt
- Lip, or the bottom edge of the bell
- Mouth, or open base; bell measurements are the diameter of the mouth
- Shoulder, the narrower, upper part of the bell
- Clapper, the swinging section which strikes the bell
- Wheel, located on the side and allows the bell to swing
- Skirt, the border where some older bells had inscriptions
- Stand, side arms and rail which hold the bell
- Frame, the wooden or metal base supports
- Reeds, molded rings on the outside of bell which were used to identify the foundry
Bells were cast in iron, steel, brass, or less commonly, bronze. Most school bells were not of bronze due to the manufacturing cost of bronze.
Large Bell Manufacturers
Bell casting and manufacturing in the United States was done by companies large and small, and there were many firms that are now forgotten. Foundries tended to make everything from cannons to stoves, but bells took a special skill to manufacture. They were cast in a mold shaped to produce a specific tone, and later ground on a lathe to continue the tuning process. school house bells were often advertised for sale in periodicals like The American School Board Journal or The School Journal. Several of the sought after bell foundries include:
- Paul Revere was a silversmith and manufactured bells, and some of them can still be heard and are considered national treasures.
- Charles S. Bell started a foundry in his name, C.S. Bells Company, in the late 1860s in Ohio, where he manufactured farm equipment, machinery, and bells. The company thrived, and thousands of bells a year were produced for use on farms and in schools. Bell sold his steel alloy products to companies like Sears & Roebuck, but shipped the bells from his factory.
- Meneely Bell Foundry, West Troy, NY was founded in 1826 and made school bells from 100 lbs. and up.
- Buckeye Bell Foundry or E.W. Vanduzen Bell Company was founded in the 1860s near Cincinnati, OH. They manufactured more than 60,000 school and church bells by the early 20th century. Some of their other products included steamboat and ship's bells, hotel and farm bells.
- Henry Stuckstede Bell Foundry was founded in 1855, in St. Louis, MO, and produced bells as late as 1933.
- McShane Bell Foundry, Baltimore, MD advertised in The School Journal promoting its "school, college and university bells" of pure tin and copper.
Listen to some of the aforementioned bells at Brosamer's Bells, Inc.
One collector at The American Bell Association notes that some bell foundries marked their bells, while others are known only through print sources, like newspapers and journals. Adding to the confusion is that foundries made bells while other businesses acted as agents and still others ordered bells with their company name but did not manufacture the bells. There were hundreds of foundries in the US, and information on them can be scant.
Features for Valuing and Identification
School house bells are generally much heavier than farm bells. An early Sears & Roebuck Company catalog listed farm bells from 35 and 90 pounds, saying that "every farm, no matter how much, should have a good bell"... with a "pleasing tone that can be heard for a long distance." The Sears school furniture catalogs listed the weight of school house bells between 165 lbs. and 1275 lbs. Bells in schools were distinguished by their sound and clarity although schools also took into account the different sizes of the bells and how much it would cost to ship the bell from the foundry to the school.
- School house bells could be sold with a frame, wheel and wood sills: the bells were placed in the upper rafters of a belfry or attic, and the rope ran up to the bell, and around the wheel. They are usually 20" to 28" across the mouth and were meant to sound higher than church bells so as not to confuse the hearer.
- Look for markings on bells, which could be the manufacturer's mark or the retailer's mark. You can see many photographs and bell markings for scores of companies at the Tower Bells website.
- According to campanologist and author Neil Goeppinger, early bell foundries used different reeds or decorative ridges on bells to identify their products.
- Sears sold bells manufactured in central Ohio (probably C.S. Bell), that were known for their "loud, clear, round, and sweet tone" and prices ranging from $13 to $103 plus freight charges. As a retailer, Sears did not always credit the actual foundry, so a Sears trademark does not mean the school bell was made by Sears.
- Watch for condition (no cracks or repairs) and ask to hear the bell, since tones vary extensively if there is damage.
- Ask if the bell is "bare" (just the bell), as is, in working condition but not mounted, or in fully restored and mounted condition. These differences can mean a big difference in costs.
- The size of the bell will affect its sound: a small bell may have a higher, sharper tone, while a larger bell has a deeper sound.
- New bells don't always look new. They can be dull, or shiny, depending on the metal. They can be painted a flat black. The molded letters may be blurry and not easy to read or clear and crisps. There are many reproductions on the market, so spend time looking at old bells before you buy and training your eyes and ears to see and hear quality.
- If traveling, stop by the Backyard School Bell Collection in Angier, NC to see (and try out) different types of school bells.
Pricing and Where to Find Bells
Bells need special restoration, maintenance, storage, and eventually, transportation. They are also expensive, particularly if you want a bell that is antique (100+ years old) and in working condition.
- Brosamer's Bells, Inc. specializes in antique large bells, including school house bells. Prices begin around $2,000 (plus transportation) and go up from there.
- Lower Bells offers a broad selection of bells, including Vanduzen. Asking prices range from about $1,800 to $3,000, depending on the bells selected. They also stock bell parts for repairs and restoration.
- The American Bell Association has a forum for collectors of bells, including school house bells. Members can request information about possible sources for bell purchases.
- The Verdin Company has been producing bells for colleges, churches and other public spaces since the 1840s. Contact them for information about current stock of American bells, including some school bells. You can also watch a video about bell making on the website.
Online auctions, like eBay, offer school house bells, but as always: buyer beware. Ask questions before you bid and watch those shipping costs. Realized prices from eBay for school house bells (not hand bells) are often much less than from bell collector sites, ranging in the hundreds, about the $200 to $400 range or so. However, keep in mind they may not be of the condition or quality as those you'll find from retailers or auction houses who specialize in bells.
A Reminder of Days Past
School house bells can still be found in historic restorations and homes. Although the bells may be difficult to locate, ship, and set up, the result will be a reminder that the past still lives in the sound of a bell.