I am a hopeless collector. One of my greatest weaknesses is brass or bronze tea bells shaped like women in full skirts. These lady bells are usually vintage or antique and were once the method the well-to-do used to call a servant into a room. The mistress of the house would ring the bell for tea. Or anything else she required.
Appearing in many shapes and designs and representing fashions through the ages, the bells can be valuable. They range in size from very tiny, under 3″ tall, to large, over 7″. The best bells have leg-shaped clappers. Some of the most intricate and beautiful bells were made in Russia. They look more like art sculptures than servant summoners. I have yet to afford a Russian lady bell.
Because a majority of the wealthy lived in Europe and the United Kingdom during the past couple hundred years, more bells can be found in these areas than in America. The European bells often are better made and more highly detailed than counterparts in this country.
Wear to the bell is a very important consideration. The hand naturally holds the bell at the head, usually right over the face. As a result, decades of use rub the facial features down until sometimes the lady has no face at all. Very sad.
My collecting criteria are exacting. The bell must be well made, no rough edges or weak places in the metal from poor manufacturing. Better quality bells have the excess material between the arms and body removed to create open space. Details must be crisp and finely crafted. Over the years, bells were copied by other manufacturers, using an original bell to form a mold. The resulting product was always more crude with poorly defined details.
Other requirements include that the face be as complete as possible and the original brass clappers be present, leg clappers are a bonus. The brass should be clean, but not overly polished, the patina of age is desirable. By no means is it acceptable for a brass bell to have been painted over. Such bells are hideous and may never be made right, no matter how hard one works to remove the paint. Finally, the bell should have a sweet ring.
Some larger bells sound similar to cowbells. This can’t be avoided, due to the size. These must have been used in very grand houses where the servants were far away. I’m not sure how genteel it would have been for a delicate lady to ring a very large, cowbell-toned instrument. Preferable to yelling, I suppose.
My current collection stands at nineteen. On my last trip to England in February, I purchased two bells and brought them home in my luggage. I have acquired examples of the main types of bells available including ladies in crinoline, in Tudor dress and in eighteenth century styles. There are several regional ones from places like Wales–the lady wears a tall, cone-shaped hat and holds knitting–to Teutonic milkmaids, to Dutch girls.
These bells are tiny bits of history. I love to ring them and share them with my granddaughter. She chimes the bells gleefully and closely examines the clappers. The lucky girl received from her great-grandmother her first lady bell for her second birthday last week. One day she will be able to add all my collection as well.