Bell and iron founding

Carl Scott Zimmerman csz_stl at
Mon Oct 19 18:31:37 BST 2009

Andrew Wilby's recent letter of announcement regarding the future of 
the Taylor bellfoundry included the words "highest standards of bell 
and iron founding."  I must confess to having been surprised at that. 
In spite of my long familiarity with the excellence of Taylor's work 
(having begun to learn carillon playing on a Taylor instrument more 
than half a century ago), I had never been aware that they were 
involved in casting iron.

The history of foundry work in America, as revealed in the classified 
sections of business directories of major cities beginning in the 
middle of the 19th century, shows that almost all foundries worked in 
either iron or brass but not both.  Those which advertised bells 
among their products were classified under "bell and brass foundries" 
(if not separately as bell founders), and never under "iron 
foundries."  What little I know of the details of foundry processes 
indicates that there is a considerable difference between how brass & 
bronze are cast and how iron & steel are cast, so this separation of 
industries seemed a sensible matter of efficiency.

To give one numerical example, around the 1880s the city of St.Louis 
had ten iron foundries which collectively employed about a thousand 
men (thus averaging about 100 employees each).  At the same time, the 
city had 20 brass foundries which collectively employed only about 
200 men - an average of 10 each.  Both types of enterprise employed 
moulders, but "brass finisher" was an occupation which apparently had 
no significant equivalent in the iron & steel industry.  Clearly the 
iron foundries were mass producing large quantities of relatively 
simple materiel, while the brass foundries were operating more at the 
craftsman or artisan level.  Bronze bells fall into the latter 
category, and so the few brass & bronze foundries which managed to 
specialize in bells never advertised anything made of iron among 
their products.  On this basis, I have assumed that bellfounders 
subcontracted the production of cast iron parts (yokes, side frames, 
etc.) to local ironmongers, though perhaps doing some blacksmithing 

Of course there are exceptions to every generalization.  I know of a 
very small number of bronze bells which were made by large industrial 
operations that worked mainly in iron and steel.  These were builders 
of ships or railroad engines, which must have had not only a large 
iron foundry for the bulk of their work but also a small brass 
foundry for specialized small parts (such as those needed in steam 
engines).  Railroad bells, too, seem to have been made mostly by the 
engine builders, rather than being purchased from bellfoundries. 
(Again, there are exceptions.)

Knowing that Taylors are the "largest bellfoundry in the world," I 
suppose I should not have been surprised to find that they also have 
an iron foundry, which I presume is used mainly for items needed in 
bell hanging.  Nevertheless, I was.

Unfortunately, all of the old American bellfoundries are closed, and 
all of the old American bellfounders and their immediate descendants 
are dead, so I cannot ask them how they actually operated in their 
heyday.  Therefore I turn to those who have read thus far to ask how 
the European bellfoundries have operated in producing or obtaining 
the various cast iron fittings used in hanging their bells.  To what 
extent have they cast their own, and to what extent have they 
subcontracted to other firms?

Thanks in advance for any information you can provide!



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