“Saved By the Bell,” by Stephen Fried. Smithsonian, 4/2017. (This was my starting point. As always, refer to the original for details and accuracy.)
I know, I know—I just lost all of the Philadelphia readers. Nobody in or around Philadelphia gives a hoot about the Liberty Bell. It is just something boring we once saw on a grade-school field trip.
For much of its life, nobody anywhere cared much about it, either. But it is here now, visitors ask us about it, so we may as well have something to tell them. It makes for a good conversation.
A trivia question: When was it last rung? A: Almost a hundred years ago, on June 14, 1917, as part of a campaign to sell war bonds at the beginning of WWI. It was taken out of its ten-foot display case and rigged with microphones, and even a trumpet to record the sound for a Victrola record. Philadelphia mayor, Thomas Smith tapped on it with a golden hammer 13 times. Simultaneously, synchronized by telegraph, bell towers all across the country rang their bells in a call for people to open their wallets and buy bonds. It had just come back from an popular exhibition train trip across the country. It was all showmanship.
Before that, no one cared about the bell. It had even been considered scrap. Before the nation’s capital moved from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., the bell hung in the old Pennsylvania State House, now Independence Hall. The State House was scheduled for demolition, and the bell with it, but the demolition project sat on the back burner with low priority for years. Then, in 1816, the State House was restored, renamed Independence Hall, and a new bell hung in its clock tower. The old bell was hung from the ceiling downstairs and only rung for special occasions.
It was still not cracked. It cracked later in 1844 when it was rung for George Washington’s birthday (maybe), one of those special occasions, and even then, it was no big deal, not mentioned in the newspapers. The exact date and reason for the fateful ringing is debatable because the bell was so unimportant, no one made note of it. They tried to repair it, widening the hairline crack to half an inch and inserting rivets at the top and bottom of the crack, hoping to make it usable (didn’t work).
It wasn’t even called the “Liberty Bell” until 1835 when it was sarcastically given the name in an antislavery pamphlet. Most of the visitors to the 1876 world’s fair were content to see a replica, even though the fair was right in Philadelphia. The bell did not gain attention until President Wilson (actually, his son-in-law, the Secretary of the Treasury) arranged that exhibition train tour across the country to sell war bonds.
So, before 1835, it was not cracked and not called the “Liberty Bell.” Most thought of it as a useless piece of junk bronze. It was not even a good bell. It had to be recast twice, when its sound was described as “two coal scuttles banged together.” In 1975, Wilmington’s Winterthur Museum analyzed the metal and concluded the amount of tin in the alloy was too high, making it brittle. The suspicion is that the inexperienced manufacturer started with scrap bronze rather than pure copper.
During its early travels, visitors chipped off souvenirs. I suspect that is why the bottom edge looks ragged.
Today, the bell is administered by the National Park Service, but is still owned by Philadelphia. If I were a Philadelphia taxpayer, I would say, “Sell it.” (I bet North Korea would run up the price.)
I don’t find this all bad. On the contrary, I see the bell as a metaphor for all of the flawed people like me, the unpromising solid “C” students, some of whom occasionally rise to prominence by pure circumstance. Look at Joe Biden.
Only in America! I kid you not.