In the not-so-distant past, people couldn’t rely on technology to notify or warn them about upcoming events, but they still found a way to communicate effectively, even over a long distance. A simple instrument enabled them to do so, and that instrument was a bell.
Apart from church bells, school bells are probably the most famous type of bells. Most school bells are now either incorporated into the wall and powered by electricity, or they are replaced by speakers that can provide a variety of sounds.
However, school bells weren’t always so advanced, and they were usually mounted or hung somewhere near the school building. Today, the antique school house bells are sought by antique collectors, so let’s take a closer look at them:
School House Bells Throughout The History
During the 18th and 19h centuries in the United States, many schools were held in private homes. Teachers in those schools used school bells to notify students about class times. The school bell was also used as a dinner bell, as it notified kids about meal times.
Although these bells were mostly used in rural schoolhouses, many universities and boarding schools used an iron school bell on their campus to alert their students about class times, meal times, and even chapel services.
This teacher’s school bell, however, was not exclusively used in classrooms. It proved to be an efficient technique for informing local populations of vital news, particularly in rural areas such as New England where residences were more dispersed.
In 1919, it was estimated that the US had more than 190,000 rural schools, and in most of them, the instructors used school house bells to control classes that often had 30-40 children.
However, these bells were gradually replaced during the mid-twentieth century, and today, a school house bell is either a decoration or a collectible item for antique lovers who are fascinated by that old school house charm.
How Does School House Bell Work?
Just like any other bell, the school house bell has several components that help the bell make its distinct sound. Most commonly, the school bell is wider at the bottom than at the top. The basic parts of the bell are:
- The bowl: the widest part of the bell.
- The waist: the narrowest part of the bell.
- The lip: the bottom edge of the bell.
- The mouth: the hollow base of the bell; this is where the sound is made.
- The clapper: a metal part that swings inside the bell’s mouth and hits against the inner walls, thus producing the sound.
- The shoulder and crown: the topmost parts of the bell.
- The skirt: the border located between the bowl and waist, sometimes filled with inscriptions.
- The bell yoke: a frame that a heavy bell is hung on. It is made of wood or metal, and it often contains the manufacturer’s info.
- metal or solid wood handle: Light bells aren’t hanged on the yoke, instead, they have a metal or solid wood handle.
To achieve the ringing bell sound, the school house bell is either swung (heavy, large bells) or shaken (light, small bells). During that process, the clapper hits against the bell’s mouth and produces a ringing sound.
Large school house bells were hung on a metal/wooden base, also called bell yoke. Other bells were much smaller, and they were held by a solid wooden handle and shaken. Such bells were cheaper, portable, and easier to use, but larger bells were more prized and used more often.
What Were School Bells Made of?
At first, large bells were made of bronze and copper. Later, cast iron was used because it was a much cheaper option that still enabled manufacturers to produce high-quality and durable bells.
Smaller school bells were made of brass and a solid hardwood handle. This enabled the teachers to carry those bells around and ring when needed.
How To Identify Antique School House Bells?
Most schoolhouse bells were larger than farm bells but smaller than fire bells. They usually weighed between 165 and 275 lbs and had a diameter of 20″ to 28″. Schools always tried to buy a bell that will have a different sound than the church bells to avoid confusion.
Identifying an antique school bell is quite simple, you just need to look carefully for markings. You can find these markings on either side of the yoke, and they contain the info about the manufacturer.
However, as a possible buyer, you need to make sure that you are actually looking at an antique schoolhouse bell. There are some replicas out there that look old and quite convincing, but they are just reproductions that don’t have so much value.
Real antique cast iron school bells mustn’t have a casting line because they were cast in one piece. If you notice a casting line, that means you are looking at a replica.
Take a close look at the lower edge of the bell, a.k.a. the lip. The real antique school bell will have a lip that has been worn out due to the constant use. If the bell has a sharp edge that shows no signs of wear and tear, it is a replica.
Many replicas are made to look old, but a keen eye can’t be deceived. A truly old bell will look tarnished and worn out in a way that can’t be copied.
When bidding for an antique school bell, always ask if it is bare (you get only the bell), or if it is fully mounted and in a working condition.
If possible, try to visit the Backyard School Bell Collection in Angier, NC. There, you will be able to see and even try many antique school bells. This way, you will be able to get familiar with how the real antique school bell is supposed to look, so you’ll never mistake it for a cheap knockoff.
Are Old School Bells Worth Anything?
Old school bells might be worth hundreds and thousands of dollars, especially if they are in a good condition. Old school bells are at least 60-100 years old, and they require a lot of maintenance and suitable storage to stay in the working condition.
Mounted bells are more expensive than bare bells because they are in a working condition and ready for use. You can find many antique school bells on Etsy, Amazon, or eBay, and many of them are still in excellent condition.
There are also various websites that specialized in selling antique bells. They sell everything from the church bells to farm bells and school bells. Let’s take a look at some old-school bells, their features, and prices:
Antique Large Brass School Bell with Wood Handle
This antique brass school bell is a good example of a hand bell used in the schoolhouses during the 19th century. Although it shows signs of old age, it is still in great condition, and its price is $120, which makes it quite cheap compared to the prices of mounted bells. With that in mind, this antique brass bell makes a great gift.
Vintage Large Cast Iron School Bell By C.S. Bells
Although it has clear signs of wear and tarnishes, this cast iron school bell is still in working condition, it comes mounted, and its price is $370.
Antique Bronze Mounted School Bell
If you want to own a truly precious antique school bell, check out this one. It was made during the Georgian era (the late 1700s) in the UK. This bronze bell is suspended on an oak yoke and rests on an oak-pine base. The price is $2,686.37.
Tips on Cleaning The Bell
Once you buy an antique school bell, you should clean it without delay. However, be careful when cleaning your vintage school bell, because you don’t want to further damage it.
- Wash both the inner and outer surface of the bell with warm water.
- Dip a sponge in a mixture of warm water and mild dish soap and gently scrub the bell.
- Be careful not to scrub the patina, because it is a sign of how old your bell is.
- Rinse again with warm water.
After this initial cleaning, you will only need to clean your bell with a damp micro-fiber cloth when it gets dusty. Avoid applying any coating, because that would ruin the bell’s antiquity.
Antique schoolhouse bells have an interesting history that attracts many collectors of antique items. They were an inseparable part of everyday lives up until the last few decades. Some elderly might still remember the distinct sound of these old-school bells.
If you plan to buy an antique school house bell at an auction, you need to make sure that it is a real thing, and not a replica. Once you find and buy a vintage school bell, make sure to care for it properly, and clean it really gently.
What’s your experience with these bells? Do you own any, and how do you take care of them? What’s their estimated price? Write in the comments!