I have been on the hunt for an authentic 19th century servant’s bell/Butler’s bell, complete with the fixing plate, spring, pulley and tapestry rope for some time. It was only recently however that I stopped to ask myself how the servant’s bell actually works. The short answer, a system of copper wires that ran throughout the house. But, as with many things regarding the Victorian era, I was itching for more information.
Prior to the 18th century, I learned that most of the family gathered in the great hall. Imagine a Game-of-Thrones-ish common area lined with wood tables, a fireplace, a designated seat for a king and space for entertainment. Because everyone gathered in this one communal space, the servants were within sight, often lingering close enough to be summoned or close enough to hear the ring of a hand bell. Even their living quarters were nearby. Servants had small rooms behind an opening of screened passages on the “low” side of the great hall.
Their close proximity was problematic. For one thing, the servant’s requirement to remain close prevented them from completing other tasks, such as cleaning or tending to guests. But most importantly, there was a severe lack of privacy. As we’ve seen in many historical/fantasy dramas, rumors are the root of many controversies.
By the 18th century, the migration to a more country lifestyle, coupled with a rise of consumer products, meant large manor houses needed to undergo a redesign, one that displayed their wealth and status without the appearance of a low-class servant--tall, handsome footmen were the exception. Simple rooms were replaced by entire wings, either in the attic or the basement. Taking the distance into consideration, new methods of summoning a servant were essential. Around 1744, internal bell systems were invented.
The Spring Bell and Bell Pull
When you picture the opening theme of Downton Abbey, you are seeing the spring bell. Near the kitchen, in the servant’s common area and sometimes in the servant’s room, bells were installed and labeled to match the room or master in which they rang. Each bell hung from a coil with a suspended pendulum and was attached to a copper wire that traveled throughout the house. On the other end, there was usually a tapestry bell pull--a long piece of ornate fabric suspended from the ceiling and decorated with a tassel. These usually hung in discrete areas of a parlor or over the side table in a bedchamber. The family need only pull their tapestry once as the pendulum was designed to continue ringing for a short while, allowing the servants time to distinguish who was being summoned.
What I found interesting was that some bells intentionally were made to have different sounds, that way, a servant could distinguish who was being summoned simply by listening.
A good servant was expected to arrive before the master had a chance to ring their bell twice. One must keep in mind, a servant’s duty was to, well, serve. A lady’s maid was essentially on-call for her mistress, never far from the kitchens or common areas in the servant’s wing. She wasn’t expected to lounge in bed or stray from the house. She, and the other other servants, would spend most of their hours near the bells, where they filled their time mending clothing, polishing silver, reading the paper, accepting deliveries or studying fashion trends.
Lever Bells were sometimes designed elaborately. They could look like handles of a door or a statue with a movable piece that could be pressed to ring.
In the early 1800s, Volta discovered the battery. This made electric bells possible. Similar to the appearance of a 1950s switchboard, there was a panel of small, labeled holes. Whenever a servant was being summoned, the correlating disc behind the hole would move, displaying a different color in some instances. Sometimes, the electric bell box would even include a speaking tube, so the family could communicate what they needed without the servant needing to make the extra trip.
Later, these bells would be replaced with the telephone, which I assume inspired the intercom system that was popular in many homes before 2000.
I am still on the hunt for a servant’s bell, one that I can afford anyway. I don’t have any servant’s, but I am sure my husband will get a kick out of it all the same.
The Nationalist--Amazing site for historians. Donate a Tree!