Personal Effects, April 8

Published 1:27 am Saturday, April 8, 2017


Question: Mr. Sampson, I have had this brass school bell since the 1960s but I have no idea how old it might be. The heavy clapper inside really makes a loud clang. The old wooden handle is quite pretty, with incised lines around it. There are no markings on it inside or out.

I see them for sale with prices all over the place. What makes one more expensive than another? When did schools stop using these to call the children in? I ring it to call the family for dinner so it’s still quite useful.

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Answer: Bells, like a lot of traditional collecting venues, have taken a hit. I can remember when I first opened that bells of all kinds would always sell. Not so much today.

I’ve had a wonderful collection of school bells, much like yours, that have sat for a long time with hardly any interest. So the bell ringers are just not out there anymore, or at least not like they used to be.

I would imagine that in regard to the pricing of school bells that size and materials are going to be the biggest factors. Larger bells are going to be more collectible than a common mid-range size.

Materials are a little more tricky. There are brass bells and there are bell brass bells. Some old time antiques dealer often call this lemon brass, because of its bright, lemony yellow color.

Now, did you know that brass is an alloy? Brass is manufactured not mined. Brass is made up of roughly 60 percent copper and 40 percent of zinc. This mixture still makes a fine material to turn into various objects. A tough and beautiful material.

Bell or lemon brass, more properly known as Bell Bronze, is a mix of 85 percent copper and 15 percent of tin. It makes a very high quality brass.

Keep this in mind. Most finely made church bells are made from bell bronze. Bell bronze when rung gives a really clear, deep and resonating chime, much like a church bell. It’s hard to tell from photos, but if your bell has an almost musical ring to it, it is likely bell bronze. A lot of modern brass, like that from India and China, is really an inferior material with more “other” metals and less and less of the expensive copper. That’s why you see it at flea markets and mid-range gift shops. It’s cheap. It does not ring well either. Never pay much for the modern giftware stuff made in India, China, other third world or major industrial countries.

I would say that the consolidation of the smaller country schools, from the 1940s to the 1960s, sounded the death knell for school bells, brass and outdoor cast iron respectively.

Back to brass bells. You’re right, pricing is all over the place. In reality I’d expect in a retail environment that your bell would be priced at about $30. Thanks for a great question. Ring that bell every chance you can. That’s what it’s there for.