The electronic bells that signal the start of classes at today’s schools have a long and humble history.
This handbell is linked to a schoolhouse at Bailey’s Crossroads. The donors, two sisters, said their father attended the one-room schoolhouse there. Edgar H. Bailey, born in 1889, often reminisced to his daughters about going to school early to chop wood for the pot-bellied stove.
The earliest bells, which were likely made from pottery before metal, are from China in the third millennium BC, and bells have had many uses over their long history. Western Civilization credits the development of the handbell to two brothers in England.
The Bailey’s Crossroads bell is brass with a wooden handle and a small brass knob on top. The clapper, a round knob, is attached inside by a thin hook and helps distinguish it from other handbells. In a traditional English handbell, the clapper is hinged and moves only back-and-forth. The clapper in this bell can swing freely in any direction.
Teachers used to use bells such as this as a communication tool, ringing a bell to signal nearby students that it was time for school or recess was over. School furniture catalogs from the turn of the century sold handbells for anywhere from 40 cents to $1.50, depending on the size.
Many credit the common use of bells in schools to noted education reformer Horace Mann. Schools today continue to sound electronic “bells” through their PA system to begin school, when classes change, and when is school is over. However, there are many who have called for this practice to stop, citing the sound as an unnecessary outdated tradition at best and Pavlovian conditioning at worst.
Whatever their future, the sound of bells will never be separated from the history of the beginning of public schools in the United States.