Sleigh bells have an immediately recognisable chime, it’s the sound of Christmas. Of course individual sets of sleigh bells are produced in a number of pitches and so can sound very different to each other – I know this because I’ve just carried a sack full of them to the car.
So many Christmas records have sleigh bells running right through them, it made me ponder as to why they are so associated with this time of year.
You all most likely know but it turns out they are horse bells and have been used to make horses look pretty since 800BC, they were thought to bring luck to the animal and gave the owner an ideal opportunity to flaunt their status and wealth. On a more practical level quite handy for warning pedestrians to get out of the way.
Britain has played a big hand in bell making history. Robert Wells and his family were famed for their small crotal or rumbler bells, which come in different sizes some plain some beautifully ornate.
During the 1800’s Winter pleasure drives became popular among the party set, who would dress up to the nines in fashionable warm clothes, the horses would be expected to do the same with their polished harness and bells. People began to associate horse bells with Christmas and Winter and the sleigh bell was born.
The Americans were big fans of Wells Bells but when William Barton set up shop in East Hampton Connecticut in 1810, the US sleigh bell business started to boom. William taught other craftspeople his skills and East Hampton soon became known as Belltown or Jingletown. By the late 1800’s Jingletown was providing 90% of the world’s sleigh bells.
With success ringing in their ears they probably didn’t hear Henry Ford’s affordable Model T automobile creeping up behind them, putting bell manufacturers out of business at a rate of knots. I’m reading here on the Classic Bells website (as you do) that by 1937 the situation had hit rock bottom when the Wisconsin State Tourist Society had to search far and wide for a set of sleigh bless to use for it’s Christmas party.
Not the case today, virtually every supermarket is awash with sleigh bells but I’m thinking if I’d have been a horse in the 20th Century with tinnitus from years of sleigh bell abuse I’d have been quite grateful to Henry Ford.