Campanology – The Study of Bells

There is plenty to learn before you invest in an antique bell!

This beautiful 56″ bell was made in 1891, and it is offered by Brosamer’s Bells, Inc., out of Brooklyn Michigan.

When I used to think of “collecting antique bells,” I was pretty much limited to picturing the typical Grandma’s collection of bells on a little curio shelf in her living room. So, when I learned that campanology meant the study of bells, I was surprised, and I doubted if there really was enough to learn about bells that would require a specific field of study. Well, of course, I was wrong as usual, but I did learn that campanology really has to do with huge copper or brass bells, weighing hundreds of pounds, and worth thousands of dollars!

There are only a few companies in the world, like the Verdin Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, that deal in and restore church bells of this size! The value of a bell like this one would be hard to appraise and would be determined after some negotiating between the buyer and seller.

My only personal story involving antique brass bells is a tragic one. I was scuba diving here in New Hampshire looking for old bottles and relics, as is my hobby. I was in a small river, in its center channel, about 15 feet down. The river’s bottom was mostly hard packed clay with a few rocks and not many bottles lying around. I could tell from the hard river base that debris here was mostly washed downstream with the river’s current.

That being said, I spotted a large cone-shaped object ahead. It was about 30 inches in diameter at its base and was covered with sludge. I had no idea what it was at first; I thought it might be some sort of backyard cement mixer bowl or something. As I got closer, I went to move it, but it was unusually heavy, heavier than regular steel. It finally dawned on me that it was an old bell!  It had the remnants of the wooden housing frame around it, but when I touched the wood it just disintegrated.

The bell was way too heavy for me to carry while swimming underwater, so I wrapped my legs around it and pressed my dive vest inflator, which floated me up to the surface. I began dog paddling to the shore with the bell wrapped around my legs. The river bank was about 50 feet away. 

When I was almost to the shore, it appeared that I was in only four feet of water, so I figured I’d drop the bell, pick it up, and walk it the rest of the way. But I didn’t realize that what I thought was solid ground below me was actually about 6 feet deep of silt! I dropped the bell, and it disappeared in the silt like a bomb being dropped into the ocean – poof.  I dove down to try to retrieve it, but it had rolled further down the bank somewhere deep in the soupy silt. I went back three additional days in search of it with an underwater metal detector, to no avail. It is still down there somewhere.

This Railroad Bell from a Western Maryland Railway steam locomotive sold for $3000 in 2017.

I suppose the only silver lining was that I wound up learning a lot about bells while I tried to identify what type of bell it was. Given its size, and the wooden frame around it, it could have been a schoolhouse bell, a railroad bell, or a small church bell. I found a handful of amazing websites online that bought and sold antique bells of all types, including some massive ones, the types you would find in a large church or cathedral.

These websites have a really cool feature where they offer not only a list of old bells for sale, with a full detailed description, size, weight, material, etc., but also a button next to the bell where you click on it, and it actually plays the sound of the bell. Awesome! What is especially interesting is that you can play the actual sound of a bell, and then play another one that is just about the same size and weight, but the bells’ “tones” would each be unique in some way. It is kind of hard to describe without hearing it yourself. Click here for an example. 

As I read further, there were very complex reasons for the different bell tones, including the form of the bell itself, the exact type of metals used (copper is the predominant metal used), the age of the bell, and how it was made.

Generally, at your local auction, there will be plenty of interest if a string of sleigh bells comes up for sale, but the price won’t be driven too high. However, if you find a full set of sleigh bells in excellent condition, that is when you will see top dollar.  As found on our Worthopedia, this wonderful set of sleigh bells sold for $234 in 2008.

As far as determining the value of a large antique bell, it is really a hard thing for me to wrap my arms around.  Important factors are:

  • The cost to make the bell originally.
  • The history of the bell, including any markings.
  • The market for a bell of that size (how many people can handle a 1,000-pound bell!).

I dug this beautiful old doorbell in an old Victorian-era trash dump years ago.  It is dated, and very ornate, which gives it lots of character and would help it bring a price of somewhere between $75.00-$125.00. It would look great as a fine detail piece for a period home looking to stay true to the era.

There is a market for smaller or medium-sized brass and copper bells, and these bells because of their smaller size, change hands more frequently. This week, there are 2,900 “antique bells” listed for sale on eBay. And at virtually every estate auction here in New England there is at least one nice bell of some type offered up for sale. The types you’ll see for sale include sleigh bells, cow bells, desktop school bells, as well as doorbells, which you’ll find in the “antique architecture” category.

Cowbells are some of the coolest bells, so simple and utilitarian. But that doesn’t do anything to drive the prices up into the stratosphere.  Nowadays, cowbells are most popular at hockey games, and on classic Saturday Night Live Skits (more cowbell!). This nice primitive example sold recently for $24.99 in February 2019.


Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at Bramiam@aol.com.

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