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|History of Horse and Sleigh Bells
Early horse bells: Pre 1800s
Ornaments, including bells of all kinds, have been used to adorn horses worldwide from at least 800 BCE through today. Horse bells attracted good luck; protected against disease, injury and evil; flaunted the owner's wealth and status; and enhanced the horse's natural beauty.
Horse bells have always had a practical purpose as well as a decorative one. They warned pedestrians and other drivers to the approach of oncoming vehicles and alerted potential customers that street vendors and delivery wagons were in the neighborhood.
Horse-bell Heyday: 1800s
In the 1800s, horse bells were used for wintertime recreation as well as for work. Winter pleasure drives required fashionably warm clothes, handsome sleighs, well groomed horses, and nicely polished harness and bells. This strong association of horse bells with Christmas and winter fun led people to gradually call them "sleigh bells" instead.
Sleigh bells became a part of popular culture, leading to songs, stories, and poetry about them. The most popular example is the song "One Horse Open Sleigh", known today as "Jingle Bells". It was written by James Lord Pierpont in 1857. Another example, not as well known, is the poem "Sleigh Bell" written by Yakov Polonsky in 1854.
The U.S. sleigh bell industry began to grow strongly in the early 1800s. William Barton is credited with starting the sleigh bell industry in East Hampton, Connecticut, USA, about 1810. Barton's willingness to teach the sleigh bell trade to others was a key reason why East Hampton earned worldwide fame as "Belltown" or "Jingletown" in the 1800s.
"...The manufacturing enterprise of [East Hampton] and its general prosperity are traceable to no one man more than to William Barton... He came to East Hampton in 1808 and commenced the making of hand bells and sleigh bells. Others learned the trade with him, and afterwards engaged in the same business...." (2)
Other individuals contributed to East Hampton's fame later in the century:
Bell manufacturers in the East Hampton area during the 1800s included William Barton, sons Hiram and Hubbard Barton, Bevin Bros. Mfg. Co., Gong Bell Co., East Hampton Bell Co., N. N. Hill Brass Co., Starr Brothers, Veazey & White, and W. E. Barton & Clark (W.E. was William Barton's grandson.)
East Hampton manufacturers, while prolific, were not the only ones making bells in the U.S. By the late 1800s, bell foundries throughout the East and Midwest produced a dizzying variety of sleigh bells and many different ways to put sleigh bells on horses and their vehicles.
"Campaigning against Crazy Horse" A snippet of history that describes military pack-mule strings and bell horses in the late 1800s.
Automobile Age: 1900s
Almost all U.S. bell manufacturers went out of business by the early 1900s, and Henry Ford's Model T automobile was the reason. In 1908, the Model T sold for $950, an affordable price for many people. Ten years later, the Model T was selling for a mere $280 each, and over 15 million per year were being sold in the U.S. (4)
As the horse rapidly disappeared as the major means of transportation, the sleigh bell industry declined as well. A small handful survived through the 1950s, but only the Bevin Bros. Mfg. Co. in East Hampton, Connecticut, remains in business today.
Photographs and newspapers document the dramatic transition from horse to automobile transportation and the accompanying disappearance of sleigh bells from daily life:
Horse bells today
Horse bells are now used for home decoration and to set a festive tone for a pleasure ride in a horse-drawn sleigh, carriage or wagon.
Many people enjoy owning and using vintage bells manufactured in the days when horses and their bells were an integral part of people's daily lives. We hope to make that a more-common occurrence by restoring vintage bells for customers.
Others choose to purchase new bells. Although all cast-brass sleigh bells are made overseas, a number of U.S. businesses, including Classic Bells, are still using time-honored techniques to produce new sleigh bell straps with these bells.
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