By DeeDee Wood
(Editor’s note: DeeDee Wood is the store manager at Tharpe Antiques, in Easton, part of the Talbot Historical Society.)
The earliest evidence archaeologically for bells dates back to Northern China from the 3,000 BC.
Bells were used to produce harmonics for religion, ceremony, clock chimes and utilitarian purposes.
Simple in design, bells resonate different pitches depending upon how they are cast, and what type of material was used.
Bells served important functions in the communities in which they were made.
The earliest bells were made of pottery, and later cast with metal, a process called bellfounding.
The earliest metal bells, found in China, played an important role in their society, providing metal sound for alerts, a way to track field animals, and the use in public engagement.
These early Chinese bells were used to produce music for many settings as well.
Bellfounding in Europe dates back to the fourth and fifth centuries, and had its origins with the monasteries. Throughout medieval periods, monks made most of the early European bells in their foundries.
Bells were made using casting methods, and early methods of making bells were crude.
The bells had tonal discrepancies due to their weight and alloy composition as well as thickness variations.
Bellfounding as a trade eventually developed. Permanent foundries were set up in town, as opposed to evidence found archeologically that earlier bell making in towns had the foundries created right on the spot by digging large pits into the ground and firing the metal and casting in the exact location the bell was to be placed.
Bellcasting was not the sole trade of a maker, who combined his metalwork to make more money, and offered services such as gun making, metal utensils and more.
Bells are made for the purpose of producing sound, and are usually made by casting metal.
Early bells were often made out of bronze, but they are also tin, copper, brass or iron.
Steel bells were attempted in 19th century England during the church building cathedral-dominated years, but that material was unable to withstand the rattling of the clapper, and failed.
Bell metal from England contained, traditionally, gold and silver, and it was said the devout would throw coins into the furnace when bells were cast to show devotion to the process and the church, as well as the fact thought, incorrectly, that they would sound better with these rich metals.
Decorative bells from around the world were also made out of horn, wood or clay.
Manufacturing of bells has remained basically the same since the first bell was made.
Small bells were made using something called a lost wax method, which means the shape was cast in wax and the form was melted away from the metal bell, or the casting method.
They are cast mouth down in a two-part mold that consists of elements called the core and shell, which is clamped to as base, or a base-plate.
Metal is poured into the cast and a bell is made.
It is cooled, and then the tuning begins.
Tuning a bell in the early days of bellfounding, was imprecise, and usually the edges were chipped away from the inside lip until a proper tone was achieved.
Last but not least, the clapper of the bell is fitted inside, giving it the ringer in which to make the sound be produced from the creation.
Bells are found around the world and were used for many reasons.
In Russia, many bells used in churches did not move, and only their clapper was rung.
On large church bells around the world, bells had a hammering device ring the bell instead of the clapper, as to not have the bell over used.
Bells played an important part in world cultures such as the Hindu religion, were a bell is hung at the temple gates and rung whenever someone enters hallowed ground.
In Japan, bells have been made since early times with metal pellets inside of them, to produce sound from the inside.
Bells had practical purposes as well.
On farms in Scandinavia, bells were kept on top of barns and rung to call in the workers for the day.
Animals all over the world, such as sheep, cows and farm dogs were fitted with bells so farmers and owners knew their whereabouts at all times.
Bells have a very long history, but stem from the human desire to create sound and tone for ceremonial and practical purposes.
Many methods were developed to produce the sound, and experimentation and development helped aid in the creation of one of the world’s oldest musical instruments, as well as works of art.
Whether you see one atop a church or cathedral in Europe, on a street cow in India, or tied to a rope on a farm in Sweden, know that the bell has a complicated and glorious history, with roots in the far East were it was developed to represent something the human voice could not obtain.