Early bells (late 1700s through about 1845)
The very earliest North American horse bells date to the 1500s and 1600s. These incredibly rare bells have been uncovered by archaeologists at the sites of early European settlements along the eastern seaboard of North America and along the paths of Spanish expeditions through Mexico and the southwestern and southern United States.
The oldest sleigh bells the average person is likely to find typically date from the late 1700s through about 1845. Very few -- perhaps 1-2% -- of all of the antique sleigh bells on the market are this old. Here are some of the key characteristics of most late 1700s and early 1800s bells:
Almost all are petal bells with an intricate, crisp design, but some are totally plain.
Petal bells are almost egg shaped with only a gentle hump around the middle.
Two holes in the base of all bells. These holes are decidedly larger than the holes in mid-to-late 1800s bells.
The throat (slit) across a bell should end in large circular openings.
Shanks of bells should have a U-shaped hole or a drilled (not cast) circular hole.
Bells are rose-gold or brownish-gold in color when polished.
Numbers to indicate size or the maker's name or initials may be found on some bells. Many bells are plain, however, with no special markings or initials.
Mid-to-late bells (about 1845-1920)
The vast majority of horse and sleigh bells were made from about 1845 to about 1920, perhaps as late as 1940. When in doubt, your bells are probably from this era. Here are some key features of bells made in the mid 1800s through the early 1900s:
Petal bells have a distinct ridge or rim around the middle.
The throat (slit) across a petal bell should end in larger circular openings.
Throats on other bell designs may or may not have this detail.
Bells larger than 1 1/4" in diameter almost always have four holes in the base.
Bells 1 1/4" and smaller often have four small holes in the base, but some have only two holes, depending on the maker.
Shank bells should have U-shaped hole or a circular hole drilled (not cast) through the shank.
Rivet bells should have a hole drilled through the bottom to accept a rivet or a screw. Rivet bells were first made in the 1860s.
Nickel or tin plating dates bells to the 1870s or later.
Chrome plating dates bells to the 1920s or later.
Modern bells (after 1940)
Sleigh bells produced after 1940 are considered to be new, recent or reproduction bells, since they were made long after the horse-and-buggy era had ended. All modern sleigh bells produced in large volumes are manufactured in India, Pakistan, China, Taiwan, etc. Characteristics of modern bells include the following:
The throat (slit) of new petal bells usually does not end in larger circular openings.
New petal bells sizes 13-18 are smaller in diameter than antique petal bells marked with the same size numbers.
All new bells are butter-yellow in color when polished.
Shanks on new bells have cast or drilled circular openings. I am not aware of any new bells made with a cast "U" shank.
New Swedish style bells have shanks like petal bells, not a loop base like the old ones.