Bells of yesteryear

...and on the eighth day God created the horse in perfect image, to romp, graze, gallop, play and make manure wherever it darn well pleases, in divine grace.

Sleigh bell derivatives and types were developed centuries ago, for horses and horse-drawn vehicles. They were thought to bring good luck to the rider or driver, or to ward off evil and disease.

Wealthy people liked to flaunt their status by putting bells on their horses, to announce themselves as they drove around town. The horse’s beauty is enhanced with a string of brightly polished bells, and the wonderful sound adds to the aura and mystique of horse and vehicle.

Roman soldiers placed a “Crotal” on the cantel of their saddles. Crotals are more like rattles, a hollowed-out object with a pellet inside. Slits, or “throats” were carved into the crotal, to allow sound to escape. They were also known as rumblers and hawk bells, and could have more than one slit or hole carved into the side or bottom. (1)

Winter recreation in the 1800's included winter driving with horse-drawn sleighs. Large, flat areas located at the edge of town provided long loops of driving track that allowed the sleigh drivers to circle around for hours. Rail birds would sit in chairs beside bonfires with their fur mitts and stone foot warmers, waving as the sleighs passed by, the cheery bell tones mixing with the sounds of friends calling and dogs barking.

The polished livery of the horses, pretty sleighs and bells, along with the fur and wool winter clothes worn by the people, made for many pleasant winter afternoons in the 19th century.

Sleigh bells are written about in poetry, song and story. The poem, “Sleigh Bell,” was written by Yakov Polonsky in 1854: “ which the sound of a sleigh bell evokes a dream state and images of lost love...” (2)

The most famous song was originally called, “The One-Horse Open Sleigh,” and was written by James Lord Pierpont in 1857.

Some of the original words are as follows:

“...A day or two ago

I thought I’d take a ride,

And soon Miss Fannie Bright,

was seated by my side.

The horse was lean and lank,

misfortune seemed his lot.

We got in to a drifted bank,

and we - - we got upsot.

“...Now the ground is white...

...Just get a bob tailed bay,

Two forty as his speed.

Hitch him to an open sleigh

And crack, you’ll take the lead.” (3)

The sleigh vehicle makes virtually no sound at all as it slides through the snow and they are difficult to stop quickly. It is important to warn pedestrians so they can step aside to avoid injury.

But something utilitarian became a fashion statement, and these days, a collectors’ item.

Types of sleigh bells include petal with horse shoe or flower pattern designs; round ridge, with no decorative patterns; and egg or round shapes that are spherical or egg-shaped. The throats or slits may have 2 or 3 on the top of the bell.

Bell makers of America included Captain William Barton II from East Hampton, Conn. (1740-1793) His bells may have a maker’s mark that appears as “WB” on petal-style bells, and he began a long line of family bell makers. Some of their foundries were destroyed by fires, one in 1816 and one in 1874. (4)

William Barton III, (1762-1849) continued the tradition, but sold the business in 1881. The new owners re-named the business the Barton Bell Company.

One of the grandsons, also named William Barton, had patents, including innovative designs for bell straps and sleigh bells. One of his patents was a design for the base of the bell to be notched or open, so it could be fastened with machine screws to leather, instead of by traditional rivets. Another of his patents claimed a method of attaching buckles to bell straps. (5)

The Barton Bell Company, which employed 50 people, continued to manufacture sleigh bells that were designed and patented by William Barton. Designs included a globe-style sleigh bell and a saddle gong. (6)

In 1888, the company moved to Grant County, located in Marion, Indiana. It ceased operations in 1892.

Other American bell makers include Barton and Starr, Barton and Clark, Goff and Abel, Parsons and Smith, Bevin Brothers, the East Hampton Bell Company, Niles and Strong and Veazey and White.

The Bevin Brothers Bell Company manufactured not only sleigh and horse bells, but house, cow, sheep, door, and ship bells, according to an historical account of 1884 East Hampton, Conn.

They also made kettles and waffle irons, and possibly made the first bicycle bells.

In May of 2012, Bevin Brothers, reported to be the last bell foundry in the United States, was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. It employed 19 people and made over 1 million bells in 200 varieties. (7)

It must have been great to meet up with friends for a sleigh ride party. The bells and the bonfires, the horses and the dogs would all make for some nice memories, like something straight out of a Currier and Ives lithograph.

Enjoy Christmas time with family and friends, grab some peppermint stick and hot chocolate, and pause a moment, because maybe you really did hear something in the lane. Thanks again for reading Horsin’ Around.

Community News is off for the holidays, but we’ll be back after the first of the year.

Leaving you to ponder the wonderful sounds of yesteryear to the immortal words of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, “Happy Trails to You.”

1, 2, 4, 5-7:

3: Wikipedia