Hear the tolling of the bells—
                 Iron bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
        In the silence of the night,
        How we shiver with affright
  At the melancholy menace of their tone!
        For every sound that floats
        From the rust within their throats
                 Is a groan.         

From “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe, 1849 

The bells and chimes of Motherland, 

    Of England green and old, 

That out from gray and ivied towers 

  A thousand years have toll’d 

   From The Bells of England by J.J. Raven, 1906 

Bells ring out for many reasons: to announce, to summon, to warn, to mourn, to celebrate, to pay homage. For centuries, bells have helped us keep track of time and commemorate important events. But they have also been used for more subversive and ignoble purposes. Among the elite, bells have long been a mechanism for dominance and manipulation.  

As their business holdings proliferated in the 18th and early 19th centuries, wealthy landowners in America and Britain built increasingly more opulent estates that required enormous workforces to maintain. Because pretense was everything in the uppermost echelons of society, it was indecorous to yell across the echoing expanses of wood and masonry. Thus, elaborate behind-the-scenes communication networks were created for the management of domestic operations. Before telephones, pagers, or Snapchat, manual call systems were comprised of wires, pulleys, and tarnish-resistant brass bells attached to thick steel coils. This technology, known as sprung bells, was developed in 1744 in England. Before its advent, servants had to stand within earshot of their employers until a command was shouted out or a handbell was rung to request service. A long-ranging call system allowed a cord to be pulled in one room to discretely ring a bell in another.1 2 

In a grand manor home, a servant had to memorize as many as two dozen different bell tones, each corresponding to a unique location. Training staff to distinguish between subtle notes in 1820 was not unlike training zoo animals to respond to clickers and follow commands given by trainers today, or Pavlov’s experiments with social conditioning in the 1890s. Masters wanted to control how and when interactions with their help occurred to avoid being surprised or embarrassed unexpectedly. Auditory cues, in this case, were manipulative devices used to elicit the desired response.3 

Hyde Hall, in Cooperstown, New York, had approximately sixteen servant call bells spread throughout many of the house’s 50 rooms. All wires converged on a central wall where senior staff delegated responsibilities to ensure that service provided to the Clarke family and their guests was immediate and impeccable.4 Servants and their dirty work were expected to remain out of sight, yet ever-present. Call bells thus reinforced and perpetuated long-practiced European systems of hierarchy that kept employees subjugated by their employers.  

What about bells resonates with humanity so? Why have these simple objects endured for so long, largely unchanged in form and function? And why is the sound of tolling instantaneously both familiar and haunting? We react to certain sounds in habitual, predictable ways, yet those reactions and their implications vary widely based on experience. For centuries among the aristocracy, the service bell was an effective tool that brought peace of mind to its operator by preserving order and the status quo. For the workforce whose livelihoods depended upon the incessant ringing of that bell, its cadence was a persistent reminder of dependency, social inequity, and oppression.   

By Carlene Bermann 

Service bell (marked with #12, signifying its tone), c. 1850, England; brass and steel, H: 10” W: 5” D: 3.5”. Hyde Hall, Cooperstown, New York, 2016.30.5. Photograph by Carlene Bermann.

1 Marilyn Palmer, “Did you ring, sir? Country house communication through the ages,” National Trust UK, accessed November 7, 2020, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/did-you-ring-sir-country-house-communication-through-the-ages.

2 “Small Finds, Big Stories: House Bell,” The Herring Run Archeology Project, accessed November 8, 2020, https://herringrunarchaeology.org/2018/01/31/small-finds-big-stories-house-bell/.

3 Wendy Danielle Madill, “Noiseless, Automatic Service: The History of Domestic Servant Call Bell Systems in Charleston, South Carolina, 1740-1900,” All Theses, accessed November 8, 2020, https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/all_theses/1660.

4 Interview with Larry Smith, November 10, 2020, Hyde Hall, Cooperstown, NY.