[Bell Historians] Oldest Change Ringing bell

Carl S Zimmerman csz_stl at s...
Wed Mar 17 05:04:42 GMT 2004

At 23:23 +0000 2004/03/16, David Cawley wrote in part:
>3. ... to assign unattributed bells to anyone without the proper 
>evidence is a risky undertaking. One can say that "The shape of the 
>bell resemebles that of bells attributed to.....(or by)" or that the 
>lettering is like that used by....,or believed to be that of....etc. 
>With dating by shape, I think we are on firmer ground. Fred himself 
>said however that care must be exercised when we come to the 
>archaic-style bells, particularly in remote locations where old 
>techniques may have hung on longer.

This excellent analysis (and warning!) triggered two not quite 
related thoughts in my mind.

Firstly, there is the question of how/when/where various changes in 
casting techniques and design were propagated in the archaic and 
medieval times, when both communications and transport were so much 
more difficult than in later centuries. I've long known of the 
general European history of the evolution in bell shapes from the 
long-waisted archaic style to the modern style. But now I wonder 
whether anyone has ever analyzed the various stages of that evolution 
in terms of where they began, why they happened, and how they spread 
to other regions. For example, were there any particularly 
innovative and influential bellfounders? or were the changes so 
gradual that no one realized what was happening until long after the 
fact? Were there regions that were either particularly quick or 
particularly slow to adopt technological innovations?

Secondly, there is the observation that the history of American 
bellfounding is vastly different to/from (:-) that of Europe in 
general and England in particular. By the time the colonial society 
had developed its technological abilities to begin to cast its own 
bells, it had experience with importing bells from well-established 
foundries in England; the day of the itinerant bellfounder casting 
bells in pits in the churchyard below the tower in which they were to 
hang was largely past. So even the earliest bellfounders here tended 
to operate from a fixed base, using imported bells as their models. 
As a result, unattributed bronze bells in this country are extremely 
rare; it is much more likely (though still uncommon) for a bell to be 
attributed but undated. (Examples are the later Revere bells made in 
Boston and the work of David Caughlan in St.Louis.)

Out of more than 1000 bells I've identified (or at least inspected 
closely) in the St.Louis area, there are only a dozen that are truly 
unattributed. They carry no inscriptions; by shape and style they 
are unlike anything else I've ever seen; and there is no surviving 
evidence from the places where they now hang or where they were 
found. Unless someone with experience of faraway foundries visits 
here, they will likely never be identified or dated.

On the other hand, there are a few bells which are superficially 
anonymous but nevertheless readily identifiable. In style they are 
identical to known products of various foundries; but either they 
never had inscriptions (usually because they are quite small) or the 
inscriptions were at some time removed (e.g., by a dealer in 
second-hand bells who wanted to conceal their origin).

Because of the readiness of communications and transport on this 
continent in the 19th c. (at least by comparison with previous 
centuries, if not with our own), the various American bellfoundries 
could advertise and compete effectively over an extremely wide 
geographical area. Shape (with its concomitant effect upon sound) 
was a significant component of competition. So in this country, 
shape is an important key to attribution of a bell but is not 
particularly useful in dating (other than as attribution to a 
particular maker limits the possible range of dates to that maker's 
known period of operation).


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