Shortly before Europe's industrial revolution, tradesmen discovered an ingenious way to rig bells in houses to mechanize communication between homeowners and their servants. Mechanical bell systems, now known as house bells or servant call bells, were prevalent in Britain and America from the late 1700s to the early twentieth century. These technological ancestors of today's telephone were operated by the simple pull of a knob or a tug of a tassel mounted on an interior wall. Bell-pulls increased privacy for both servants and their employers by separating both parties by the length of a bell wire, but they also increased masters' powers of nonverbal control. Mechanical bell systems undoubtedly played a large role in the operation, maintenance, and communication practices of historic houses. But, like a lost language, surviving bits and pieces of hardware and wire are a puzzle to many modern viewers who are more familiar with technology that usurped the bell-pull--electric doorbells, intercom systems, and telephones. Unfortunately, many mechanical bell systems have been removed from historic houses.
Although domestic servant call bells were ubiquitous across America, and were even installed in the White House, very little has been written about them. This thesis addresses the lack of literature by creating a technical and cultural history of bell systems in the Charleston, South Carolina area. Many historic dwellings in Charleston have retained a remarkable quantity of house bell hardware consisting of copper or iron wire strung through walls and attached to cranks, pulleys, and knobs--all connected to exterior bells. Many private residences and several historic house museums including the Aiken-Rhett House, Heyward Washington House, and the Joseph Manigault House still retain fragments of their original bell systems. These systems undoubtedly shaped the way slave owners communicated with their slaves. Even after the Civil War, Charlestonians continued to use servant bells to communicate with their newly emancipated household servants.
By studying local tradesmen, installation practices, and technological development this report will fit Charleston bell hanging practices into a larger scheme nationally and globally. To accomplish this aim, full-scale mapping of the bell system at Charleston's Aiken-Rhett House museum was undertaken. As one of the more complete bell systems in a historic house museum, the Aiken-Rhett House offers an extraordinary opportunity to interpret the daily life of slaves and servants in the Charleston area. This project aims to make the case for preservation of these peculiar old hardware fragments by shedding light on what these systems were, how they worked, and how they can be preserved.