The Sound Of Bells

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There is no documentary proof that the Liberty Bell actually rang to announce the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776. But if it did not, it must have seemed strange to the citizens of Philadelphia. The Liberty Bell, like all other town bells, was there for a reason. Bells and bell-ringing were an important part of everyone’s life two centuries ago, indispensable chroniclers of each passing day.

Town-hall steeple bells did not customarily strike the hours in the eighteenth century, but they did strike three daytime signals: six in the morning (when most people got up), noon, and nine in the evening for curfew. Often curfew was followed by a “count-strike” so that people could properly date their diaries before retiring. Calls to court, town meetings, church services, and even (in small villages) announcements of births and deaths were all part of a kind of Morse code that everybody understood. Deaths were rung only by church bell, usually after the rising peal at six; the age of the deceased was sometimes rung too. Executions were rung from the instant the gallows did its work: the toll for a man was “three times three,” and for a woman, “three times two.” Town bells also rang for emergencies like fires, and to call the people to get important news in the town square as soon as a bulletin arrived by horse and rider.

Bell-ringing was an art in those days—especially, of course, if a town or church steeple had a set of matched or harmonized bells. A veteran could manage three bells at once—one rope with each hand, and the third with a practiced foot. Even a single bell, according to early accounts, could be rung “joyously,” “solemnly,” “alarmingly,” or “informingly”: you had to know iust how to pull on the rooe.

America’s first bells were brought from the Old Country, but it wasn’t long before native casters were hard at work. Everyone knows that Pass and Stow cast the Liberty Bell; they saw to it that their names showed prominently on the bell itself. It is not so well known that Paul Revere was one of America’s great bell-makers: his shop in Boston cast over four hundred church bells. By the nineteenth century there was a thriving business in smaller bells, too, centered in East Hampton, Connecticut, whose factories made some two hundred different types. Sleigh bells were a necessity in winter, and farmers ordered various kinds of cow and sheep bells. They could be purchased “tuned to accord,” so that the farmer could distinguish his animals from a neighbor’s, sight unseen.

Whether the Liberty Bell rang the adoption of the Declaration of Independence may never be known: but it can reasonably be assumed. Certainly the Fourth of July was, until Civil War times, a day of bells. People carried bells with them wherever they went, and town bells rang from morning till night. It would be a good custom to revive; for firecrackers make the noise of war, while bells sound the note of freedom.