Bells have played a major role in our lives for hundreds of years, going back to when Egyptians used bells to worship their gods and Romans used bells to express their gratitude to their gods for their success in battle.
In Medieval times, the ringing of bells was believed necessary to chase evil spirits from doorsteps, to quiet storms at sea, or to protect a person’s soul at death.
Bells have played many roles, such as being time keepers—letting villagers know when it’s time to eat, to sleep and even to pray. For many years, bells have both warned of danger and invited celebration.
Bells are used every day to announce to the community that a member had died and reminding them to pray for the deceased. On different occasions, such as every September 11th, communities ring bells to remember those who have passed away during the attack on The World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Flight No. 93 that went down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The bells ring to honor those who died, to remember them, and to remind people to pray for them.
Bells are also used as a celebration. Unlike the single tolling of a bell as a memorial, multiple bells can be rung in peals of celebration. Peals are traditionally rung for weddings and other celebrations such as the end of a war. Peals are also rung in communities for different celebrations on many different occasions.
It is said that hundreds of years ago people knew their local church bell and never forget the sound, recognizing the different ringing of the bell and what each ring meant. Even people who left the community to return years later still recognize and remember the sound of their town bell.
Even today, there are many churches throughout the United States where the bell in the tower actually belongs to the town. The bell that was used years ago to communicate to the community, still does the same thing today.
It’s hard to trace back to when bell casting of bells actually began. The Chinese had temple bells. Going back to the 1400s and 1500s, there are records of church bells being cast. Most of the bell foundries that have cast bells in the United States were located in the Northeast; Massachusetts, Vermont, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, and in the Midwest; Cincinnati, OH and St. Louis, MO.
In going through some of the old historic records of bell founders in the United States, it is hard to locate any bell founders, in fact that is really no record of any bell founders that have cast bronze bells west of the Mississippi River. Most bell foundries in the United States were East of the Mississippi River.
Most bells have been cast in America since the 18th century. But as an actual industry, bell makers did not get under way until after the American Revolution.
- In 1717, John Philips of New York City was the first founder to call attention to his craft.
- The next bell founder who cast any notable bells was John Whittier of Fairfield, CT. He started casting bells in 1738. He would cast bells up to 2,000 lbs. which was certainly a very large bell for the time.
- John Pass, who was one of the original bell founders who re-cast the Liberty Bell, started casting bells in 1749.
- In 1761, Aaron Hubbard was casting bells when he was ordered by the government to convert his foundry from casting bells to make cannons. Aaron had a young man named Paul Revere working with him.
- After the Revolutionary War, Revere started his own bell foundry in 1792, casting bells for many years. His sons, Joseph and Paul, Jr., worked with their father in casting bells. In 1817, Revere cast his great bell, with a weight over 2-1/2 tons. The bell is still in the tower of King’s Chapel in Boston and still rings today. Revere cast over 400 bells between 1792 and 1828.
- Another major foundry in the United States was Holbrook Foundry, which operated in the same era between 1816 and 1880. Major Holbrook was an apprentice to Paul Revere and later worked with Paul Revere, Jr.
- William Blake also emerged from the shadows of Paul Revere. Blake entered into a partnership with Joseph Revere in 1820, and their work went through most of the 19th century. They went through many mergers and partnerships, the latest one formed in 1890 as the Blake Bell Company.
In the decade before the Civil War, there were more than 30 bell foundries in the United States. After the Civil War, between 1880 and 1890, there were no bell foundries listed in the New York Business Directory.
Some of the more notable bell foundries after the Civil War were located West of New York and Boston. Cincinnati had two great bell foundries; the Hanks Bell Foundry founded in 1851 and the Buckeye Bell Foundry founded in 1837. The Van Duzen Bell Foundry was the successor of the old Buckeye Bell Foundry and in 1869, Van Duzen cast a large bell weighing 35,000 lbs. This bell only rang once because, it was said, the first toll broke all the windows the neighborhood. Today this bell is in St. Francis de Sales Church in Cincinnati and is rung with a stationary striker, ringing the hours and also the Angelus. Verdin completed all the hardware necessary to hang this bell.
After the Second World War, the company stopped casting, leaving just a few bell foundries in the United States:
- The Meneely Bell Foundry in Troy, NY. There were two Meneely Bell Foundries operating under the name Meneely name in 1869, Meneely and Company out of Watervliet, NY and the Meneely Bell Company out of Troy, NY. The split of the company came after the Civil War when Hank Meneely came home from the war, fought with his brother, and moved across the river to start his own bell company. The two bell companies operated for many years until they both closed in the 1950s.
- The Stuckstede Bell Foundry of St. Louis, MO cast bells from 1855 to 1962. This was the only bell company West of the Mississippi. There were 10 different brass bell companies out of St. Louis that came and went through that time period, but the Stuckstede Bell Foundry was the only bell company to be able to successfully cast and sell bells throughout the United States.
- The McShane Bell Foundry originated with Henry McShane in Baltimore, MD. Henry started up his business as a brass foundry in 1856, primarily casting plumbing fixtures, with never a thought of casting bells until a friend of his—who had come to the United States from Germany where he had worked in bell foundries in Europe—and convinced Henry to get into casting bells. The company’s output included bells up to 10,000 lbs. McShane cast fire alarms, ship and steamboat bells. The McShane Bell Foundry has always maintained the McShane name, but has had several different owners. The foundry has cast bells since 1856.
These bell foundries were the major bell founders throughout the United States. All of these foundries cast many great sounding bells and these are the bells that most of us hear today. As most of the bell foundries were territorial, because of the access of getting the bells to the church, you will find many of these churches and bells, around a certain area, will all have come from one foundry. Certainly, in the Cincinnati area, you have Buckeye and Van Duzen bell Foundries. The Stuckstede Bell Foundry in St. Louis furnished bells in the Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota areas. And in the East, you will have the Blake, Meneely, Paul Revere and Hanks bells.
Many years ago, cast bells were never tuned. When a foundry cast a bell, they made a bell that was a certain weight, a certain size, a certain diameter, a certain thickness and that bell would be a specific note. By today’s standards, when a bell is cast, metal is removed out of this bell in order to be able to tune this bell properly.
There are five areas to a bell that needs to be tuned in order to give a precise carillon pitch note. As a bell is struck, the note or tone of the bell comes from the vibration that is carried through the bell. The tone and tonal quality of the bell is determined by how each area of the bell is tuned. The five areas of a bell, when they are tuned, generate the fundamental strike of the bell.
The tuning of the bell is also very critical, but even as a bell is struck, even with the older bells that aren’t tuned, a very important part of the bell is the clapper that strikes the bell. If the clapper is not of proper size, diameter and weight, and of the proper material, this won’t give the bell as nice a sound as it should. It is critical that the clapper is made out of the proper material and is cast for the size bell it is to strike. Everything is calculated out in order to get the best tone out of a bell. You could have a bell that is perfectly pitched and is perfectly tuned, but if you use a clapper that is too small or just made out of steel, it is not going to give you that beautiful sound. So the clapper is certainly an important part of any bell.
Some of the world’s largest cast bells were cast hundreds of years ago. It is amazing that they could cast bells of such large weights.
- The great Mingun Bell in the City of Sagaing was cast in 1808, measures 13’ tall and weighs 200 tons. This bell is still being rung today.
- The Tsar Bell in Moscow is currently sitting on a pedestal with a large chunk of the bell broken out of it. This bell was cast around 1735 and with a weight of over 4 hundred thousand pounds. This bell was damaged during a fire in 1737 when the fire was burning in the area of the bell, it was said that in order to put the fire out, they poured water near the bell. The bell was extremely hot and when the water was poured on it to put the fire out, the bell broke.
- The World Peace Bell weighs 66,000 lbs. and measures 12′ in diameter.
- A bell called “Big Joe”, cast by the Van Duzen Bell Foundry 1895 and installed by The Verdin Company, weighs 35,000 lbs.
- Big Ben in London, England, which weighs 13 tons, is still ringing today. The bell was named after the first commissioner of works, Sir Benjamin Hall. Although we don’t have an actual date when the bell was cast, we know it was refashioned by Whitechapel in 1858.
Over the years, bell foundries have closed and today there are very few bells cast in the United States. Verdin’s foundry in Cincinnati, Ohio is the only dedicated foundries that cast bells of any significant size. Verdin casts bells up to 1,000 pounds, and works with The Royal Eijsbouts of the Netherlands to cast bells over 1000 pounds. Royal Eijsbouts has been casting bells since 1872.