Does this ring a bell? School bells of the late 19th and early 20th centuries

What’s it like to intern with our Division of Home and Community Life? Elizabeth Wells found herself falling in love with our bell collection while puzzling over the mysteries these durable, often attractive, and sometimes noisy objects.

As noted in Lar and Sue Hothem’s 1993 book School Collectibles of the Past, “most bells sound as clear and commanding as the day they were made.” During my internship, I found that to be true.

Cast iron bell with eagle handle
Hand bell made of cast iron with a handle made of a gold-painted eagle. The bell rung for the recording below is a duplicate of this bell in the History of Education Collection. Dr. Richard Lodish American School Collection, around 1860–1930, Home and Community Life, National Museum of American History.

The bell rung for this recording is from the Dr. Richard Lodish American School Teaching Collection. Objects in this collection can be touched by visitors. The bell is a duplicate of one in the History of Education Collection, which is preserved for research, exhibition, and use in programs.

Today’s students are accustomed to electric school bells in hallways and classrooms. These bells often alert students when school begins, when classes change, and when school is over. However, teachers over 100 years ago followed their own pace for beginning and ending the day and obtained bells for their own use. Hand bells, desk or call bells, and larger bells found in belfries rung by the pull of a rope could all be ordered from teachers’ catalogs. Many bells like those in the museum’s Richard Lodish American School collection were available for purchase in a variety of shapes, sizes, and designs, and were made using different metals.

Circular shows a range of bells along with their prices
Circular for the United States School Furniture Company teachers’ catalog. Dr. Richard Lodish American School Collection, around 1860–1930, Division of Home and Community Life.

I enjoyed exploring the options teachers had when selecting a bell for their classroom. Pictured above are two pages from a circular for the United States School Furniture Company teachers’ catalog from around 1900. A school or church bell was mounted to a pole or belfry and was rung using a bell pull (see the left-hand page). A desk or call bell was rung by tapping the knob on top (right-hand page). The standard rates for most bells in catalogs were determined by their weight and diameter. According to this catalog, the early-20th-century hand bells featured in this blog post cost around 75–90 cents.

Gold bell topped with eagle design
A patriotic school bell displayed in the “Many Voices, One Nation” exhibition at the National Museum of American History. Dr. Richard Lodish American School Collection, around 1860–1930, Division of Home and Community Life.

Bells sent messages beyond schedule-related announcements. For example, hand bells like the one used for the sound recording at the beginning of this post and the one featured in the Many Voices, One Nation exhibition include a handle in the shape of a bald eagle. The American eagle is one of our national symbols found in classrooms and during the Progressive Era to instill patriotism and further cultural assimilation. Included in the Dr. Richard Lodish American School collection are bells with unique features unlike the many simpler designs found in the late-19th- and early-20th-century teachers’ catalogs pictured above.

Bell topped with a human figure
A hand bell the interns refer to as “man bell.” For the handle, this hand bell includes a figure of a schoolboy with his book strap full of books propped on his hip. Dr. Richard Lodish American School Collection, around 1860–1930, Division of Home and Community Life.

Since school bells of various shapes and materials could be purchased from numerous teaching catalogs, they were very common in early rural schools and one- and two-room schoolhouses. With as many as 30 to 40 students within one room, bells were important tools to help teachers structure the school day and instruct their students. Teachers would ring bells like the ones pictured above to begin the school day, let students know when recess time was over, and end the school day. Due to their wide usage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they are easy to obtain. But it is a challenge for researchers and bell aficionados alike to determine their origin. If you or someone you know has more information about our unique bells, please give us a RING . . . I mean, e-mail!

Elizabeth Wells completed a curatorial internship with the Department of Home and Community Life in the summer of 2017. She assisted with cataloging and photographing objects in the Dr. Richard Lodish American School Teaching Collection. She is a student in Virginia Tech’s Material Culture and Public Humanities Program. For bell fans, she recommends this blog post on Paul Revere’s church bell. You can learn more about our internship program here.