Usually when we move boxes of archeological collections, we don’t want to hear any noise coming from inside the box. Sound usually means artifacts have been poorly packaged and are bumping into one another, or worse yet, some squeaky creature has taken up residence. In this case, however, the sound coming from the box summoned up not images of broken ceramics or diseased rodents, but of snow, horses, and holiday fun: jingle bells found at the Schuyler House in Saratoga!
Norm Eggert for Northeast Museum Services Center.
Properly termed “crotal bells”, what we frequently call jingle bells or sleigh bells have been used for hundreds of years, with some early British examples dating from the 13th century. Originally, crotal bells were made by casting sheet metal pieces with four “petals”. A small pellet was placed inside and the four petals pushed together to contain it. By the end of the 13th century, bells were cast in two pieces and soldered together at the midline, giving the crotal bells their distinctive ridge. This midline ridge was retained even though crotal bells began to be cast in one piece in the late 15th or early 16th century, and are still often seen on modern examples.
16th-17th century bells from Faccombe Netherton, England.
Courtesy British Museum, Online Collections Database
Crotal bells were most often used as a safety mechanism, to warn pedestrians and other riders that a horse or carriage was approaching. It was not until the mid-19th century that they became almost exclusively associated with sleighs and winter recreation. The popular song “Jingle Bells” was written by James Lord Pierpont in 1857, cementing the modern association of crotal bells with Christmas.
Most bells used in America probably would have been manufactured in England up until the early 1800s, though Ivor Noel Hume suggests that colonial metalsmiths were probably casting small batches as well. William Barton of East Hampton, Connecticut is most often credited with the beginning of American sleigh bell manufacturing, and the town’s multiple bell-makers dominated the market up until the early 1900s, when the invention of the automobile and its horn rendered the bells unnecessary.
The bells we found jingling in a box were discovered by archeologist John Cotter in 1959, at the Schuyler House at Saratoga National Historical Park. The Schuyler House was built by General Philip Schuyler in 1766, burned down by the British in 1777, and rebuilt shortly thereafter. The house that still stands was used by the General, his son John Bradstreet Schuyler and his family, and his grandson (also Philip) until he was forced to sell during the economic crash of 1837.
The bells from the Schuyler House are very plain, bearing no maker’s marks or decoration, so they are not much help in dating themselves or the site. From other artifacts found nearby, such as transitional whitewares, and from information about the site itself, we can guess that these bells probably date from the mid-19th century. Perhaps they were lost by Phillip II’s family as they departed Saratoga for good, or perhaps they fell from the harness of someone visiting the Strover family, who lived in the house for over 100 years. Either way, it is a rare find that allows archeologists to hear the sounds of the past, once so common to the people whose lives we study. We often see what they saw, touch what they touched, we can even taste what they tasted, but the sounds of everyday life are often lost to us.
What sounds have you heard that helped you feel connected to the past? What other archeological sites do you know of where crotal bells have been recovered?
American Bell Association, http://www.americanbell.org/
Blunt, Rod. “Crotal Bells”, http://www.ukdfd.co.uk/pages/crotal-bells.html
Brears, Peter N. B. Horse Brasses. Country Life Books, England. 1981.
British Museum, Collection Database, http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database.aspx
Classic Bells, http://classicbells.com/index.htm
Hume, Ivor Noel. A Guide To Artifacts of Colonial America. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. 1969.
Keegan, Terry, et al. Horse Bells. National Horse Brass Society, Surrey, England. 2nd ed. 1988.