Animal Bells are Ringing

Collector's home filled with bells of all kinds: sleigh, harness and animal bells

Gary Spickler and two sets of rump bells made by William Barton between 1808 and 1826 in East Hampton, Conn.

Gary Spickler and two sets of rump bells made by William Barton between 1808 and 1826 in East Hampton, Conn. These are the oldest bells in Gary's collection. Rump bells were attached to the harness over the horse's flanks.

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Gary Spickler of Hagerstown, Md., has an extensive collection of animal bells that echoes two centuries of American history. He picked up his first strap of sleigh bells 35 years ago. 

"There are sleigh bells and cow bells and even dog bells," he says. "Cow bells were used throughout the country in the 18th and 19th centuries, and some are still used today. They belled every animal so they'd know where it was."

The term "sleigh bell" includes all harness bells. There are saddle chimes, hame (or Conestoga bells), and shaft and pole chimes. According to Gary, the closed jingle (or crotal type bell) is the most popular with collectors.

"They come in sizes from 000 (7/8 of an inch), to 18 (3 3/4 inches)," he says. "A strap of bells can have 25 to 40 bells on it, either all one size, or graduated sizes. It's difficult to find a complete original strap of bells. It's hard to say the price, but I generally figure a strap of rivet bells at $4 a bell. With individual bells, size is more of a factor than the condition, and you're more likely to find small bells than the bigger ones. The big bells would get damaged or cracked. A badly cracked bell is nearly worthless."

Jingle bells come in two styles: rivet and shank. Rivet bells slide through a hole in a leather strap.

Shank bells, though, are fastened with a butterfly-shaped wire on the back of a strap. When shank bells were used in harness, a second strap was added to protect the horse. The bell strap was attached to the horse around its middle or its neck.

Gary says true bell metal is 88 percent copper, 10 percent tin, and 2 percent phosphates. Bells were also made of brass, steel, pewter and iron, with brass providing the most resonance. The larger the bell, the lower the tone.

Most of the bells used in the 19th century in the U.S. and Canada were made in East Hampton, Conn. The use of bells on pack animals dates to medieval England, when their sounds alerted oncoming traffic to their presence. By the 18th century, their use on horse harnesses was almost universal. Their usefulness as a safety factor was enhanced by their musical sounds and decorative appearance.

In 1809, William B. Barton of East Hampton developed a method of casting jingle bells in one piece. He established the first factory devoted exclusively to bell making. Prior to that time, those bells had been made from two pieces of metal pressed together.

"Many of Barton's workers went on to establish their own bell factories, making East Hampton the bell capital of the continent, with more than 30 factories," Gary says. "Many of the bells, including those of Barton's descendants, bear the maker's initials. But the bell industry faded with the coming of the automobile, and now only the Bevin Brothers Company makes bells in East Hampton."

Gary is the proud owner of two sets of rump bells (made between 1809 and 1826) inscribed with Barton's initials. Rump bells are short straps of large bells worn over the horse's flanks.

William and Abner Bevin were Barton apprentices who started their own factory in 1824. Later, two more brothers, Chauncey and Philo, joined the company, and in 1868 it took the name Bevin Brothers Manufacturing Company. Gary says that even though the company made other products, their specialty was sleigh bells. In 1972, Stanley Bevin, representing the sixth generation of the family, took over the business.

"By the end of World War II, only four bell manufacturers remained in business," Gary says. "They were the Starr Brothers Bell Company; N.N. Hill Brass Company; Gong Bell Company; and Bevin Brothers. Gong was known for its production of an acorn-shaped bell made by Ezra Cone after the Civil War. Nearly all initialed bells can be traced to the East Hampton manufacturers."

With a well-stocked workshop and a carefully organized display room, Gary spends many hours repairing and restoring his collection. He has a varied selection of tools, some specially made. The shop is packed with cabinets full of information, including copies of bell patents. Containers hold different sizes of bells that he's found at flea markets, antique shops and malls, or acquired from other collectors. He also has a collection of old buckles, straps and individual parts for saddle chimes, hame and shaft bells.

If he finds an original strap of jingle bells, Gary likes to leave them intact.

"I don't take the bells off," he says. "I'll take Neat's foot oil (which penetrates the leather) and do everything I can to save it."

Collectors are divided on restoration efforts.

"There is a great debate among collectors across the country about shine or patina for bells," Gary says.

"Some like them one way, and some another. I don't think there's a right or wrong. I like to find the old original patina. I have compounds to clean dirt and grime, but not disturb the patina."

In his display room, one wall is covered with more than 60 complete straps of jingle bells. Some are original; some he's put together with old and new materials. The room also contains an extensive display of saddle chimes, neatly mounted on handmade, custom designed stands. Saddle chimes, first patented in 1863, are arched frames holding three or more open bells that were mounted on the back pad or saddle. There are many designs, some ornate.

Gary has been a member of the American Bell Association for many years. The organization describes itself as "a group of friendly people who enjoy collecting bells for their sound, appearance and history." The organization holds annual conventions featuring speakers, bell forums and bell discussions. It also publishes a bi-monthly educational magazine called the Bell Tower, filled with bell-related articles. ABA regional chapters meet at least twice a year throughout the U.S. and in other countries.

With so many collectors going online to hunt bargains, will Gary follow their lead?

"No computers," he says. "When I retired, I left them at work." FC 

For more information: The American Bell Association International Inc., 7210 Bellbrook Drive, San Antonio, TX 78227; online at www.americanbell.org.  

Jill Teunis is a freelance writer living in Damascus, Md. She is interested in writing about communities, their people and their history.