Friday, January 2, 2015

Ringing in the New Year with Sleigh Bells!

To help us ring in the New Year and in the nostalgic spirit of a snowy holiday season this week in archaeology will focus on a common artifact found in Pennsylvania homesteads and stables from the colonial period through the early 20th century—“S” is for sleigh bell.

Ornamental crotal or rumbler bells with engraved petal motifs were manufactured in British foundries as early as the 1500s. During the colonial period, mold-cast crotals with similar motifs were imported in large quantities to the Americas.  They adorned animal tack, carriages and sleighs of European settlers; and were traded to Native Americans who re-incorporated bells into their own cultural practices, using crotals for personal ornamentation.   By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, petal bell crotals became commonly known as sleigh or jingle bells, names popularized in Victorian-era Christmas carols still sung today.

A crotal or rumbler bell is distinguished from an open mouthed bell by its lack of an attached clapper. It is considered a rattle, rather than a true bell for this reason. Sound is produced by the inclusion of a loose pebble or iron jinglet encased in the bell’s round body. The sound travels out of the bell through the throat, a slot or series of slit openings on the bottom half of the body. The shank is located on the opposite side of the bell and is used to attach the crotal to a leather or cloth mount.   
Three petal-decorated and one undecorated mold-cast sleigh bells with slanted, u-shaped shanks, 17th - 18th centuries, Conestoga Town (36La52), The State Museum of Pennsylvania


Five of six sleigh bell crotals were recovered from PHMC excavations at Conestoga Town (36La52), a Susquehannock village site of the period from 1690-1740 (Kent, 2001; 207-208; 386). Based on their archaeological contexts, these bells are likely of British manufacture sometime in the late-17th to early-18th century and exhibit a slanted u-shaped shank typical of the period. While local metal smiths are likely to have produced crotals prior to the mid-1750s, the first commercially established foundries in the American colonies casting sleigh bells on a large scale were not operating until the latter half of the 18th century. Two sleigh bells from Conestoga Town exhibit a W.K. or M.K. makers’ mark which may link them to the Knight foundry (1518-1709) of Reading, England. The bell pictured below is engraved with the initials G.W. or W.G.; a common mark associated with Aldbourne, Wiltshire foundries of the 17th and 18th centuries (Hume, 1969). The W.G. maker’s mark cannot be ascribed to a specific bell maker until the late-18th century, William Gwynn. However, it is present on many examples of earlier dated crotals produced in the Wiltshire region prior to the establishment of the Gwynn foundry (1770-1813). (Link to Blunt for more information about the history of crotals and British foundries).
Seventeenth-eighteenth century sleigh bell, petal-decorated on upper and lower hemispherers, G.W. or W.G. maker's mark, Conestoga Town (36La52), the State Museum of Pennsylvania, on exhibit.

Hume (1969) believes the Wells foundry also of Aldbourne, was operating as early as 1694 and may have produced bells with a G.W. maker’s mark before the proprietorship of Richard Wells and sons (1755-1825). The R.W. engraving is a widely accepted diagnostic mark of the late 18th century Wells foundry, famous for producing sleigh bells in the largest array of sizes of any manufacturer in England. Sleigh bells with these marks have been found in archaeological contexts in Williamsburg, Virginia among other late 18th century colonial contexts.
The petal bell is also the most common design for sleigh bells dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. The first American manufactured sleigh bells were produced in East Hampton, Connecticut by Captain William Barton and his descendants. Pictured below is an early example of a petal bell designed crotal most likely produced by a member of the Barton clan (circa 1740s-1845).

American manufactured sleigh bell, 2 ¼” dia., 18th-19th century, Fort Hunter (36Da159), The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

The bell was found behind the icehouse during 2013 PHMC excavations at Fort Hunter. Diagnostic characteristics include the petal engraved motif, the “B” marker’s mark present next to a single throat that terminates in circular ends, and the presence of two mold holes on either side of a cast u-shaped shank. This bell most likely belonged to the McAllister family who owned the property from the mid-1780s to the late 1800s. The presence of this American-made artifact among other household goods reinforces the political and economic transitions that occurred during and after the revolutionary war, as American craftsman began to fill the demand for fine-crafted goods formerly met by British import markets.
Nineteenth-twentieth century sleigh bells, left-1 1/4" dia.,right-2" dia.,manufacture unknown, Westmoreland County,   Robert Oshnock Collection, The State Museum of Pennsylvania.


 The sleigh bells from Westmoreland County pictured above also have a u-shaped shank like the bell found at Fort Hunter; however, the presence of four mold holes circling the shaft is likely evidence of post-1850 manufacturing techniques. There is a faint petal design and number “8” engraved on the larger crotal from the Milk site (36Wm540), indicating a 2” diameter size. The smaller bell, a general county find, displays a petal motif and also lacks a maker’s mark.
The State Museum, Section of Archaeology wishes you a happy and healthy holiday season! Please visit our exhibit booth at the Pennsylvania State Farm Show, January 10th-17th.  The exhibit will feature artifacts and information focused around cultural change and adaptation to the environment since our earliest occupation in Pennsylvania about 16,000 years ago.  Our booth is in the Main Hall in the Northeast section of the area, directly across from the Bureau for Historic Preservation and their Historic Markers scavenger hunt.  You can’t miss us, just look for the only 20 foot long replica of a Native American dugout canoe!

2014  The British Museum. A History of the World: Crotal Bells. Electronic document.
Blunt, Rod.
2005  UK Detector Finds Database: Crotal Bells. Electronic document.

Classic Bells Ltd.
2002  Electronic document.
Cotter, John L. and J. Paul Hudson
1957  New Discoveries at Jamestown. National Park Service.
Hume, Ivor Noël
1969  A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Kent, Barry C.
2001  Susquehanna’s Indians. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Spouse, Deborah A.
1988  A Guide to Excavated Colonial and Revolutionaly War Artifacts. Heritage Trails.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

1 comment:

  1. The W.G founders mark was definitely William Gwynn. There dreams little doubt amongst British collectors. The practice of identifying founders this way was not widespread with earlier examples. It appears on northern examples a little earlier but not from the Wiltshire foundries.