During the Georgian, Regency and Victorian eras (mid 18th and 19th centuries), anyone who wanted to represent themselves as having an air of middle-class respectability employed domestic help. Servants, butlers and housekeepers had a crucial role to play in the daily running of households in these eras. These staff were responsible for numerous labour tasks such as heating, cooking, laundry, fetching and carrying - requiring lots of movement around the house, and lots of work.
In order to be able to communicate efficiently with the domestic staff, internal bell systems became very popular when they were invented in 1744. Prior to this invention, servants would have to wait outside their employer’s rooms or linger unassumingly in the background of the family quarters, waiting for orders. This was considered intrusive and inefficient. The innovative bell systems therefore increased privacy and meant that servants could remain in their quarters whilst waiting to be summoned. This new facility became a standard in this era.
Non-Electric Bell Systems
In the living areas, a piece of tapestry ribbon disguised the bell pull. This was connected to a tapestry-covered copper wire which ended with a brass loop hung from the wall. At the moment a servant was required, a tug on the brass loop would carry the movement along the copper bell wire to the servant quarters, leading to a spring with a bell mounted on it. There, the spring vibrated from the pull on the wire, and a bell would ring.
The bells were found mounted on the wall just outside the kitchens, each labelled to indicate which room it connected to. Footmen would be stationed nearby, waiting for the bells to ring. On hearing the summon, the servant would then head to the correct room to receive and then carry out their orders.
The Rise of the Electric Bell Push
However, the complex nature of the installation process and the cost of maintaining these systems were problematic. Additionally, a new development in the form of electric bells, allowed for an improved notification system using waving flags instead of bells. This meant that by the late 19th century, electric systems had become common household objects, making the original bell system obsolete to everyday society.
Bell pushes, or Butler bell pushes, used by the household to summon the service, were beautiful and intricate feature pieces in the home, often made from wood, metal or bone.
Eventually electric bell pulls also made their way out of Georgian and Regency homes with the demise of the servant. Of course, the concept still exists today in different modes and for different reasons.
Bell Pushes Today
We can be reminded of the beauty and charm of bell pushes in popular period TV shows like Downton Abbey, and when we revisit classic literature like the works of Jane Austen.
Lydia, my love, ring the bell. I must speak to Hill, this moment.
- Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Bell pushes can be interesting and desirable design pieces, and are nowadays seen as valuable and classical collector’s items.
If this rings your bell, visit our exquisite Butler Bell Antiques Auction which ends Thursday 12 October. This auction, offering a number of bell pushes from a private collection of early 20th century, demonstrates a wide variety of shapes and material across the pieces, with a deep Art Deco influence. These bell pushes come from different ancient dwellings, located in Gracia, a district of the city of Barcelona. This district, well-known for its Modernist buildings, such Gaudi's Vicens House and Guell Park, is one of the most important and historical neighbourhoods in the city and had a great importance in the urban development of Barcelona during the 19th century.