So, You’re Not from 1780?

Historic bell restoration projects here at the National Bell Festival sometimes have us scrambling up dusty ladders in search of clues to a bell’s age or provenance, as if we were Nicolas Cage in National Treasure (with less dramatic intrigue). We love uncovering America’s history through the bells that hang above us or, in the case of the bell at Georgetown Lutheran Church, a bell that sat firmly on the ground.

That’s where we found the bell at Georgetown Lutheran Church when we first stopped by for a visit. Not in the elegant stone tower rising from the corner of Volta Place and Wisconsin Ave. (even though we peeked up there, too), but rather on an old cart tucked out of the way and buried by storage boxes. It was an unassuming start to a fascinating journey of discovery.

A story begins.

Stories passed down from congregants of the church recount that this bell was cast in 1780, named in an 1829 Supreme Court case, and squirreled away during the Civil War to prevent it being melted down for ammunition (or, alternatively, that it was sold to pay church debt). Certainly, one bell of a good story. But was it all true? 

We know as fact that a bell at Georgetown Lutheran Church had hung in the tower in 1779 or 1780, and that same bell could be heard ringing in 1829 from that landmark case, but was the bell in front of us that bell? To find out, we turned to our resident campanologist, Benjamin Sunderlin of the B.A. Sunderlin Bellfoundry in Ruther Glen, Virginia.

Ben’s first job: to inspect the bell and provide a professional assessment of its age and origin. As the lead bellmaker at the only bell foundry in the United States that continues to use the historic technique of casting in swept loam, his dedication to provenance and historical accuracy is unmatched.

After inspecting the bell at his bellfoundry – during which time he cleaned the surface of oxidation (rust) and toxic patina, tested the metallic composition, and analyzed fractures within the structure – Mr. Sunderlin concluded that the Georgetown Lutheran bell was most likely cast during the middle- to late-19th century. Three key findings support this conclusion.

The primary metal in the bell is cast iron. 

Iron bells in America and Europe were a 19th century fad. Grey iron was being melted and poured earlier than that, but the technical skill and resources required generally meant that iron metallurgy was confined, under warrant by heads of state or nobility, to the production of ordnance, e.g. iron cannons to outfit a Navy.

There are examples of iron ore being smelted and goods being produced in iron plantations in the 18th century in New England, specifically Vermont, to support the potash demand (potash was made in large kettles). Iron plantations supplied these kettles and other wares, but when baking soda was invented, the demand for potash evaporated overnight. So, too, did these early iron plantations.

It wasn't until the Industrial Revolution that cast iron production became more prevalent, and therefore more affordable for use in products made for a wider audience. While it is possible that this bell could have been made in the 18th century, it would be very unlikely.

The bell’s shape is indicative of later designs. 

The Georgetown Lutheran bell has a distinctive exaggerated flare along the bottom of the waist into the sound-bow that would suggest a provenance in the 19th century, when lesser iron foundries were starting to mass produce bells very differently than the more campanologically-driven bellfounders who worked in bronze. The shape of these iron bells was dictated by visual aesthetics and production limitations, rather than purity of sound. Nowhere before the 19th century do we see iron bells made with this flared shape.

There are no evident markings or signatures to indicate a foundry.

Bellfounders are proud of their work. If this bell were cast in the 18th century, it would be well ahead of its time and the responsible foundry would mark the bell’s surface with a stamp, engraving, or figure to indicate its origin. The absence of any such inscription indicates this bell was more likely produced quickly as a 19th century commodity.

An effort at fixing a crack in the lip of the bell, extending up the waist as a hairline fissure, was attempted several decades ago at least. While we cannot definitively pinpoint the bell’s origin, given the above indicators, it is our opinion the bell was cast in the middle- to late-19th century.

Then where is the church’s original bell?

Nobody knows! Somewhere along the arc of history, one bell was replaced by another. Our best guess? The bell, lost during the Civil War, was greatly missed at the church. An electronic carillon, installed in the tower circa 1930, simply wasn’t cutting it, so when a noble-hearted member of the congregation located a suitable bell and brought it back to the church, two stories were commingled into one.

We look forward to continuing our restoration works and reinstallation plans for the Georgetown Lutheran bell, while learning more about its enthralling history. Don’t miss a beat! Sign up to stay in-the-know as we uncover more bells and bell stories in Washington, D.C. and across America.


Georgetown Lutheran Church

This article is part of a curated series on our work to restore the bell at Georgetown Lutheran Church in Washington, D.C. Continue exploring:

The National Bell Festival would like to thank B.A. Sunderlin Bellfoundry for their exceptional work in preserving this bell of historic importance.