For most non-equestrians, the sound of sleigh bells is close to being synonymous with the romance of winter.
We’ve all sung songs like Jingle Bells and the Sleigh Ride since we were kids:
Jingle Bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way – oh what fun it is to ride in a one horse open sleigh!
Just hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring ting tingling too. Come on, it’s lovely weather
for a sleigh ride together with you.
A few years ago I decided that I wanted to capture the magic sound of sleigh bells myself. I wanted real antique sleigh bells, ones with a history. I imagined myself trotting through the woods spreading the happy sound of winter music.
Quickly I learned that antique sleigh bells are expensive. Not so much when you buy the odd bell or two, but if you want a string of bells still mounted on a harness strap, be prepared to fork over several hundreds of dollars.
Although decorative bells have been used on horse since the Roman times, in the U.S. sleigh bells became very popular in the 1800s — made even more popular by the song Jingle Bells, which was published in 1850.
In addition to their entertainment value, bells played a critical role in sleigh safety. Since it’s difficult to stop a sleigh quickly, the sound of the bells gave ample warning to oncoming traffic. Some stretches of roads required horses to wear bells.
The hub of U.S. bell making was East Hampton, Conn. In fact, in the mid-1800s it was known as “Bell Town” or “Jingle Town”. The bell making trade was established by William Barton, who went on to teach others how to cast horse bells. Most older bells were cast from brass but there are also examples of bells made from silver and bronze. Eventually, the technique for stamping bells out of sheet metal was invented in East Hampton, allowing bells to be mass produced but changing the sound of their music forever.
The technicalities of sleigh bells.
Different size bells have different tones. Larger bells generally having deeper tones. On a single strand of bells you might have several different size crotals (the official name of the housing that encloses the pellet) or a uniform size. Although old bells generally are marked with a number, there is no correlation with the timbre or pitch.
The sound is made when the pellet inside the crotal strikes the metal housing. This pellet, which is also called a jinglet or a pea, was typically made of iron or steel but in older bells could be a smooth pellet.
The pellet inside a crotal, also called a jinglet or pea, is usually a small ball of iron or mild steel, although the pellet is sometimes a smooth pebble of stone. In addition to the slits cut into the bell, most crotals also have holes that are cast into the lower half that are called sound holes.
Interestingly, if you choose to go the antique route, it’s the smaller bells that generally have the bright sound associated with sleigh bells. Larger older bells often have a less melodic, duller sound. This was my experience and it was corroborated by the research that I’ve done.
My bell experiment
In the end I bought several bells on eBay. A few were single large bells that were pretty to look at, but disappointing to listen to. I also had a few smaller, older bells that were still attached to a harness.
Full of Christmas cheer I hung the bells from Freedom’s neck and headed out into the woods on a beautiful snowy day. We jingled. And it was pleasant for about five minutes. After that, it was, unfortunately, just annoying. It ruined the peaceful quiet of the ride. It drowned out the satisfying crunch of hooves on snow. It was loud. I took the bells off and hung them on a tree to be picked up on the way back.
I still like my bells. They are beautiful. I like to think about them attached to sleighs a hundred years ago. But I prefer the quiet of the day when it comes to my ride.
Take a listen to the sound of the bells in these videos. They sound pretty good for five minutes or so, don’t they?
More about antique sleigh bells:
Classic Bells – this is a hugely informative site with great photos of bell designs.