Animal Bells are Ringing

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


| December 1999



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.

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.