Bells reveal crafts, customs, cultures

Bells have been made in all countries for thousands of years, and production continues to flourish--making them a favorite of hobby collectors all over the world.

It was during the bronze age that man first worked with metal to produce a ringing tone. Bells have been crudely fashioned by humble craftsmen and meticulously made by such master silversmiths as Boston's Paul Revere and England's Hester Bateman. They have been cast in large and small foundries and produced by porcelain factories and glass works of all sizes in all parts of the world.

Countless types of bells exist: church bells, school bells, doorbells, clock bells, sleigh bells, and carillon bells. We recognize the sound of ship bells and fire engine bells. And most of us realize that throughout history famous bells have rung, pealed, and tolled events of great significance from royal weddings to state funerals and armistice announcements.

Yet many people do not realize how intimately bells have been connected with man and his religious, social, and economic customs over the centuries . Today, study groups, clubs, and collector organizations are probing the history and lore of bells. One collector explains it this way:

''A love of history and of things intellectual, spiritual, and romantic ties bell collectors together. We enjoy the contact with the crafts, customs, culture , and mythologies of other ages and peoples as revealed through their bells.''

The American Bell Association brings together 3,000 collector members through annual conferences, the Bell Tower publication it mails them eight times a year, and local meetings sponsored by 48 chapters around the country. The organization also has members in several other countries, including Canada and Australia. Japan has 30 members. The association's 37th annual convention will be held June 27-30 in Orlando, Fla., and will feature bell talks, films, exhibitions, and sales.

Bell collectors Louise and Robert Collins have edited and produced the Bell Tower magazine for 39 years. Each month she types the copy, and he runs the printing press, in what she terms ''a real mom-and-pop operation.''

''We've learned so much through this hobby,'' Mrs. Collins says. ''It has opened up the world to us. We've found bell people to be fun, curious, and inquisitive as well as acquisitive. We've taken our members touring to Canada, England, Scotland, Europe, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Hawaii to see and hear great bells and to meet other bell people in those countries. This September we will go to Australia to visit 20 bell people who live there. The love of bells is a great link.''

England's Queen Victoria gave art glass wedding bells as wedding gifts, Mrs. Collins says. And such well-known English factories as Wedgwood, Spode, Ainsley, and Royal Crown Staffordshire are still producing bells sought by collectors. Many of them are commemorative bells for royal coronations, weddings, and other historic events.

Today, she says, both Hummel and Norman Rockwell bells are favorites of one segment of collectors. One reason bells are so popular with collectors is that they are available and still reasonable. Mrs. Collins estimates that, in general , prices range from $5 to

,000, but he adds that ''many, many good bells are available in the $18 to $ 20 range.'' Many companies are now producing annual bells or Christmas bells particularly for the collector's market.

Collectors include Barney and Lotus Rosasco of San Jose, Calif., who have collected 300 bells in their travels over the world (their last, a cloisonne bell purchased in China a few months ago). Nathaniel Spear Jr. of New York has combined an interest in bells and archaeology to assemble a great collection of bells of the ancient and medieval worlds. Mr. Spear spent 12 years researching and writing ''The Treasury of Archaeological Bells'' (New York: Hastings House). It is available at a few leading book stores or for $27.50 (postpaid) directly from Mr. Spear, Room 1510, 509 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10022. Mr. Spear's book presents the bells of over 50 cultures, including the Chinese, Persians, Lurs, Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.

Among American bell museums the Granite Glen International Bell Museum outside Evergreen, Colo., (about an hour west of Denver) houses 4,000 bells dating from 1000 BC to the present. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day and at other times by appointment. Here one can see bells once owned by Lillian Russell, Sarah Bernhardt, and Harry Houdini, as well as an Egyptian Coptic incense bell once used for frankincense and myrrh.

One can also visit the Hammond Bell Museum in Eureka Springs, Ark., and the Elliott Bell Museum near Pittsburgh in Tarantum, Pa. The latter has a collection of 13,000 bells. The Dorothy and Robert Cole Museum in Biddeford, Maine, can be visited by appointment.

Membership in the American Bell Association, founded in 1940 at Chautauqua, N.Y., is $12 a year. Inquiries can be addressed to R.D. 1, Box 286, Natrona Heights, Pa. 15065.

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