American bell frames

Carl S Zimmerman csz_stl at s...
Sun Oct 19 03:01:52 BST 2003

In response to David Bryant's interest (original subject "This week's 
obscure question"), here's an outline of what I know about the 
history of American bell frames. I do not pretend to be an expert on 
the subject, but having explored hundreds of bell towers in the 
St.Louis area, I think I can write something useful and interesting.

The biggest difference between English and American bell frame 
history arises from the fact that the American bellfoundries almost 
never attempted to hang bells for full-circle ringing. (Two 
exceptions are known, one from McShane and one from Meneely/West 

The biggest similarity between the two histories probably arises from 
the fact that almost all of the bells imported in colonial times came 
from England, so that their fittings and style of hanging would have 
served as models for the early American bellfounders. In fact, when 
St.Michael's Church in Charleston ordered an octave from Lester & 
Pack in 1763, the shipment (in 1764) was accompanied by "written 
Instructions for making the Frame of the Bells conformable to a 
Moddle sent with them." The order also separately priced the bells, 
the clappers, and "8 pair Brasses", each by weight, the fourth item 
of the order being a collective sum for "Stocks, wheels, Iron work, 
Rollers, Ropes, &ca." The "Brasses" would have been plain bearing 
blocks, probably intended to be set into the top of horizontal timber 
frame members.

This method of bell hanging was probably used by most American 
bellfounders up to about the middle of the 19th century, with each 
bellframe being built by a local artisan at the bell's destination. 
Certainly the earliest surviving locally-made bells in the St.Louis 
area are hung this way. At least two small single bells were hung 
with the brasses let into the end grain of short vertical posts which 
stand on the belfry floor, each braced by a pair of smaller diagonal 
timbers nailed in place.

A larger set of 3 bells, made in 1853, was hung at the top of a 
massive timber frame with trapezoidal sides, i.e., the four corner 
posts are not vertical. The bells are in separate pits at the top, 
the frame has horizontal cross-pieces about halfway up the legs, and 
the bottoms of the legs stand on corbels in the corners of the brick 
tower. Presumably this was done so that the horizontal thrust of the 
swinging bells would have been absorbed by flexing of the frame 
rather than being transmitted to the tower.

By the mid-1860s, however, almost all swinging tower bells were being 
hung on a pair of cast-iron A-frames, with a plain bearing slot at 
the top of the "A". The feet of the "A" were horizontal plates with 
one or two bolt holes, by which the A-frames were fastened to a 
timber base. Although the styles of the A-frames and the bases 
varied from one foundry to another (as did the bells and the rest of 
the fittings, of course), the common factor was that bell and frame 
could be assembled completely at the foundry, shipped to the 
destination by railroad, and hoisted into the tower without any need 
for a skilled bell hanger. The foundry supplied instructions for 
hoisting, placement of the bell in the belfry, and roping. 
Multi-bell installations were now done simply by hoisting multiple 
bells, each in its own frame, into the belfry. If the tower was 
large enough, they were arranged on the belfry floor in whatever way 
was convenient; if space did not permit that, then multiple platforms 
were built to carry the bells in their individual frames. The two 
heaviest installations in the city, each with a bass bell of about 
6000 lbs, date from 1881 (4 bells) and 1893 (5 bells), and are 
accommodated in tall massive trapezoidal timber frames which carry 2 
or 3 platforms, respectively (bass bell on the bottom platform).

By the 1880s, cast iron bells (actually a primitive form of steel) 
were being mass-produced by the thousands, and the ones large enough 
to be intended for hanging in a tower were shipped from the foundry 
with the same kind of cast iron A-frames on timber bases. (However, 
I don't know of any foundry that produced both bronze and iron bells. 
So the method of hanging was simply "current accepted best practice", 
I suppose.)

Plain bearings were superseded in the early 20th c. by a variety of 
other types before modern ball bearings were adopted. A number of 
ingenious methods were tried, involving various kinds of wheels or 
rollers in oil boxes. But the only effect on the way the bells were 
hung was to change the shape of the top of the A-frame.

I'm not certain when pre-fabricated steel frames replaced cast-iron 
A-frames on timber bases, though I doubt that any of the St.Louis 
foundries ever used them. (The largest such foundry closed in 1931, 
and the last in 1961, though it produced very little after the 
1930s.) But in 1923, Meneely (Watervliet) supplied a pre-fabricated 
steel frame that was assembled on site; using a variety of L-section 
material, it supports four large bells on five A-frames of two sizes, 
all standing in a straight line on the timber floor of the belfry in 
a much older tower.

In the last half century, essentially all tower bells in America have 
come from the European foundries (more Dutch than anything else), and 
have been hung in accordance with their standard practices.

I haven't touched on the subject of American chime frames, which are 
considerably different from those used for swinging bells.

As I indicated at the start, this is just an outline (or perhaps 
"sketch" would be more accurate) of what I know at present. I hope 
some day to be able to give this subject more extensive treatment on 
my own Website.

Carl Scott Zimmerman, Campanologist
Avocation: tower bells: (Co-Webmaster)
Recreation: handbells:
Mission: church bells:
Voicemail: +1-314-821-8437 (home) E-mail: csz_stl at s...
Saint Louis, Missouri, USA - - 19th c. home of at least 33 bell
. . . . . . . . . . . . . foundries or resellers

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