A Brief History of Handbells

Bells come in many sizes and shapes and apparently have been around almost from the beginning of mankind.  We're told (by people who presume to know these things) that the earliest "bells" were probably gourds or nutshells which were struck on the side by a piece of wood. Bells made from metal have been traced back to the Bronze Age (circa 3000 B.C.).  Bells have been used throughout the ages to tell the time, carry messages (remember the "recess" bell of bygone days) and warn of emergencies (fire trucks) or celebrations (church bells).

Towers were constructed in the 1500 - 1600's so that the bells, when rung, could be heard over longer distances. "Carillons" are bell towers with several tuned bells and are usually played by a "ringer" from a keyboard and pedal board made of levers. Five or more bells were usually rung one after the other from the highest to lowest creating "peals".   The English, we are told, developed their own method of ringing their tower bells called "change  ringing". This was "mathematical" system instead of a "musical" system and used multiple ringers. They would alter the sequence of bells, thus the "change".   Change ringing became popular in England in the mid-1600's.

I guess tower ringers got tired of climbing all those stairs to practice because it wasn't too long before they developed a set of handbells so that they could rehearse at home or at the local pubs.. Suddenly, they realized that the "handbells" made nice music too, so forget those stairs....... the first bell choir was born.

English handbells came to the United States in the early 1800's.   The circus-guy, P.T. Barnum arranged for a touring handbell group in the 1840's. It took another 100 years before handbell ringing really became popular, expanding from churches to schools to community groups.   Now, there are nation-wide organizations devoted to the promotion of handbell ringing, providing regional instruction for directors and ringers and entertainment and joy for those who come to listen.

(Most of the early history I found on the internet  in a paper published  by the Music Department of the Jefferson County Public Schools, Golden, CO.)


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