by Anita Mae Draper
|Lady in cutter, Calgary, Alberta, ca 1910. Courtesy of Glenbow Archives|
The winter songs that merrily sing out about sleigh bells jingling at Christmas weren't just a holiday tradition, but in many snow regions were a legal requirement to winter transportation. The reason being that fast gliding sleighs and other conveyances on steel runners were often the cause of accidents to the unwary. A leather strap of bells, as in the above photograph, was an easy way to warn the public as well as comply with any local laws concerning winter driving.
|Porcupine Advance (Porcupine, Ontario, Canada), 23 Jan 1924|
Although many states and provinces have taken the sleigh bell law off the books, it is still illegal to drive a horse-drawn sleigh without bells in Ontario, Canada, where according to the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, "Every person travelling on a highway with a sleigh or sled drawn by a horse or other animal shall have at least two bells attached to the harness or to the sleigh or sled in such a manner as to give ample warning sound."
Court records found in the London, Ontario public library show a common occurrence in 1877 for sleigh drivers to be fined $1.50 for driving a sleigh without having bells attached.
Depending on size and how they are made, sleigh bells give off sounds from merry jingling to heavy clunking. The image below shows round bells with a single slit, called a throat, that is one open cut across the diameter to let out the sound of the iron pellet or ball bearing rolling around inside. Sleigh bells don't hang down like an open bell, but are riveted to the strap, or held in place with a shank, and stand upright for the best sound quality.
Crotal bells with iron ball bearings, 19th century. Courtesy of National Museum of American History
There are no rules to how many bells are too many, or how elaborate sleigh bells and their harness can be. Take this late 16th to mid 17th century pen and ink watercolor from a Nuremberg, Germany parade which shows an impressive harness with many bells.
Album of Tournaments and Parades in Nuremberg, Germany. Public Domain, Wikipedia
Sleigh bells are known by several names and shapes depending on the region. What we call petal bells in North America are referred to as crotal bells in the United Kingdom. Manufacturers of petal bells - on both sides of the ocean - go back 400 years and vary in size from 3/4 inch to over 4 inches or more. Older petal bells have a ridge around the middle and two to four holes cast into the lower half. The older they are, the more decorative, with manufacturers initials or the size engraved near the throat.
|Crotal bell cast by the Robert Wells bell foundry of Aldbourne, Wiltshire, U.K. Public Domain Wikipedia|
Early catalogs show strap with bells alone, or with chimes attached. The open bottom chimes added a melodious sound to the jangling strap of bells and could be heard from a greater distance.
|Strap Bells, Sears, Roebuck and Co., 1896. Public Domain|
|Bells and Chimes, 1890 catalog. Public Domain|
As a modern collector of jingle bells, I bought a strap of sleigh bells a few years ago and then gave it to my daughter. This year, my son is in his first apartment and drooled over my leather wreath with large sleigh bells attached, so I gave it to him. I am left with this modern reproduction assortment, none of which are worth anything of value, but pleasurable enough when it comes to testing their different shapes and sound quality.
|Anita's Jingle Bell assortment|
Personally, I love the sound of No. 2 Ring of Jingle Bells which have hung on our front door Christmas wreath in winter weather for several years. I also like the richer tone of No. 3 and No. 5 which appear to be made of the same metal but have different throats. For contrast, No. 6 is an open bell and not a jingle bell.
I found this interesting video where you can hear and learn about the different sounds of sleigh bell types. More pics and info on their post by the same name.
Everything You Never Knew You Never Knew About Sleigh Bells
Everything You Never Knew You Never Knew About Sleigh Bells
If you are interested in sleighs and horse-drawn winter conveyances, check out my post, https://www.hhhistory.com/2017/12/sleighs-cutters-carioles.html for info and images from the past.
Have you ever been on a sleigh ride? Have you heard the sound of sleigh bells? Care to share your thoughts?
Giveaway of one new signed copy of a small hardcover book, A Cup of Christmas Cheer Volume One: Tales of Faith and Family for the Holidays to one person who leaves their email address in the comments of this post.
Deadline to enter is Dec 5, 2019 at midnight PST.
My first published story, Riding on a Christmas Wish, is part of this collection and is set in 1911 Ontario, Canada. Riding on a Christmas Wish features sleigh riding so if you liked this post, enter today for a chance to win the book.
What a fun and informative post! Thanks for sharing. We have taken hayrides during which the horses wore bells, and I've also seen variations on people's doors, but I've not taken a sleigh ride yet.ReplyDelete
Hay rides are good too, Linda, although a lot more jostling goes on when you're sitting above wheels instead of runners. The sound of hooves on bare ground is quite different to those on snow. If you don't mind a nip at your nose, add an open sleigh ride to your bucket list. :)Delete
Thanks so much for the post. I love the sound of bells as well. Don't know why I don't have any in my decor. Thanks for the giveaway as well! bcrug(at)twc(dot)comReplyDelete
Connie, you just reminded me that my mom crochets 3" open bells in Christmas-colored yarns and adds little jingle bells inside. I hang them in the corners of doorways and arches and even give some away as gifts. Our kids seem to treasure them.Delete
Thanks for entering. :)
Thank you for sharing your wonderful post! I have never taken a sleigh ride but I would love to. What fun!ReplyDelete
mauback55 at gmail dot com
Melanie, you're in for a treat if you do go on a sleigh ride. An unforgettable experience.Delete
Thanks for entering. :)
New author for me. cheetahthecat1986ATgmailDOTcomReplyDelete
Kim, looks like you're a new reader for me, too. :)Delete
Thanks for taking the time to stop by and enter.
I had no idea that sleigh bells were required by law! How interesting!ReplyDelete
stevejoin @ Donohoanalytics DOT com
Lisa, it all depends on your region, especially if you don't live near the snow belt. Not only that, but many locales are taking the sleigh bell law off the books because they consider it antiquated. I believe they're the same people who don't want horse-drawn conveyances of any type to be using public roads...and yet there are still people who only use them.Delete
Thanks for entering. :)
Sweet post. Thanks for sharing. I have always loved bells also. In the desert on the ranch we would use them on harnesses to be heard, to just enjoy the sound and because they were so fun. Nice video. I rode a sleigh with bells once when we visited my grandfathers sister/family in the mountains. That was soooo cool. Didnt want it to end. But understood the horse could only take so much cold. quilting dash lady at comcast dot netReplyDelete
Lori, thanks for sharing your experience. I can see bells used in the lonely desert as it would also be a sound to keep wildlife away. I also like that you mention the horse getting cold despite your wish to keep going. Your adventurous side is showing. :)Delete
Got you entered.
When writing my historical set in my hometown in 1871-72, I used a diary kept by a woman who lived there at that time and during the winter months she mentioned going by sleigh places, even traversing the frozen lake to get to the other side. I never thought about the sound of sleigh bells and incorporating them into the scenes when my characters were riding in a sleigh.ReplyDelete
Pamela, it's a lovely sound to add for the overall effect of the reader, but since many places don't have snow, or don't use bells if they do, then it probably wasn't even missed. Besides, I'm sure you had plenty of other sensory delights for the reader's pleasure.Delete
And aren't those diaries invaluable! The problem is they sometimes don't mention all the little things they take for granted and we're aching to discover how they did things. :)
I love bells also, but I don't have any yet. I enjoyed learning about the laws regarding having bells on the horse of a horse-drawn sleigh. It was a practical way to announce that a sleigh was approaching for the safety of others in sleighs and for pedestrians.ReplyDelete
Ruth, there are so many types of bells it's hard to find one that sounds really nice instead of tinny or jarring. On the other had, I think people would move out of the way faster if a loud garish sounding one came along. I wonder if those Salvation Army kettle ringers wear earplugs? They must get sore arms after awhile, but I love their jingling sound.Delete
Pssst Ruth...come back with an email address if you want to enter the giveaway.
Thank you for this fun post, Anita! I have never been on a sleigh ride, but I think it would delightfully wonderful!! I don't think I have ever seen a presentation of sleigh bells before. I really enjoyed the video of the different types of sleigh bells and the sounds they make. So Awesome!!! I love all things Christmas and so enjoy Christmas books! Thank you for the chance to win a copy of 'A Cup of Christmas Cheer Volume One: Tales of Faith and Family for the Holidays'!! It sounds so good!! ~Alison BossReplyDelete
Well, Alison, it IS a good book, the perfect size for a hectic season, and is sold out at Guideposts. I really hope you like the stories if you're blessed with winning it.Delete
As for the sleigh bells video...I've watched it several times and really like the different sounds of the bells. I couldn't explain that with any clarity, so I was excited to discover the video and the blogpost it came from.
Thanks for sharing with us today. :)
This was a great and fun post to read about sleigh bells. I have a couple rings of bells I have on my doors. I enjoy hearing the sound of sleigh bells. A friend has sleigh bells for her horses and wagon.ReplyDelete
I'm always ready to read Christmas stories focusing on faith and family. Thank you for the giveaway opportunity.
Marilyn, thanks for sharing about your neighbor. So good to hear that bells are still in use whether on a wagon or sleigh.Delete
Yes, A Cup of Christmas Cheer has 8 short stories of faith and family. I loved writing my story for this collection and loved that I could look at images of horses with bells and cutters for inspiration. Those Currier & Ives photos...sigh.
Thanks for stopping by and entering. :)
Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway for A Cup of Christmas Cheer Volume One. With the help of www.random.org, the winner is... agboss !ReplyDelete
Congratulations, agboss, keep an eye out for an email from me today.
Yay! Thank you so much, Anita!!! :)Delete