Online: Object of the Month
Ring Those Bells: Paul Revere, Bell Maker
Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.
This trade card, issued by the firm of Paul Revere and Son, advertises the manufacture of "Cast Bells and Brass Cannon of all Sizes, and all kinds of … Bolts, Spikes, Nails, &c." from copper at their foundry in the North End of Boston. Although Paul Revere designed elegant gold and silver objects and engraved political cartoons (The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street), almanac and magazine illustrations, revolutionary currency, and bookplates, he did not inscribe this advertisement for his cannon and bell founding business. The steel engraving is by Thomas Clarke, who worked in Philadelphia and New York in the 1790s, before he came to Boston.
Paul Revere has been in the news a great deal lately, as political commentators and newspaper and television reporters have analyzed his role in the coming of the American Revolution and minutely dissected the details of his famous ride. He also has recently appeared in local news reports about the planned installation in the bell tower of the Old South Meeting House in Boston of a church bell he cast in 1801 for the Meeting House in Westborough, Massachusetts.
From Bell Ringing to Bell Casting
We celebrate Paul Revere as the "everyman" of the American Revolution, but over the course of his long and active life (1735-1818), he pursued many different careers, evolving from a master artisan in colonial Boston to a business entrepreneur and proto-industrialist in the early national period. He was, successively, a silversmith, engraver, revolutionary propagandist, soldier, cannon founder, dentist (a manufacturer of false teeth), hardware store proprietor, coppersmith, and bell maker.
Paul Revere's connection to church bells and bell ringing was longstanding. As a teenager in Boston, he had signed a contract with Christ Church (the Old North Church) to serve as a bell ringer, even though he attended the New Brick Church of Boston, but it was not until after the Revolution that he turned his considerable technical expertise in metalwork to bell making. The political, social, and economic upheaval of the Revolutionary War allowed Revere to move beyond his origins as a skilled artisan and expand his operations into new technical fields. After the Revolution, he entered the iron casting business and built a foundry; and then expanded into the manufacture of the copper, brass, and bronze objects and fittings listed on his trade card, and many more.
In 1792, Revere’s congregation at the New Brick Church engaged him to cast a new bell to replace the “injured” bell that they had inherited when they combined with the Second Church of Boston. According to contemporary reports, Revere’s ambitious first attempt at bell casting (a 912-pound bell) was not entirely successful, but he persevered and the bell making partnership that he began with his sons, Joseph Warren and Paul Revere, Jr., remained in family hands for more than forty years. In 1901, after the New Brick Church of Boston had dissolved and its building razed, "THE FIRST CHURCH BELL CAST IN BOSTON 1792 BY P. REVERE" was sold to St. James’s Episcopal Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it remains on display, ringing only twice each year on Good Friday and at midnight on Christmas Eve.
The extensive Revere family business records held by the Historical Society show that the Revere firm, which continued under several different combinations of family members (Paul Revere ended his active role in the bell-making partnership in 1811) cast a steady stream of large church bells that often bore the elegiac inscription, "THE LIVING TO THE CHURCH I CALL AND TO THE GRAVE I SUMMON ALL." The foundry also produced a variety of smaller ship and school bells, including a bell for the frigate, Constitution, launched in 1797, and a bell for the new Charlestown, Massachusetts, State Prison in 1806. For a list of bells cast by the Revere family business written by Paul Revere, please see the web presentation of two pages from a manuscript volume from the Revere family papers.
A Revere Bell for the Old South Meeting House
In 1801, Samuel Parkman of Boston ordered the 48th church bell cast by the Revere foundry (the 71st bell, counting ship and "academic" bells), inscribed "REVERE & SONS BOSTON 1801," and presented it to the town of Westborough, Massachusetts, for their Meeting House. When the Westborough Meeting House closed in 1837, the town sold the 876-pound Revere bell to the Westborough Baptist Church which, in turn, closed in 2007. The Old South Meeting House of Boston, a national historic landmark, has been without a bell since 1876, when the congregation moved to the Back Bay of Boston and took their church bell with them. The Old South recently announced that it has arranged to bring the “Westborough” Revere bell back to Boston, so after a circuitous, 210-year journey, a Revere bell will ring from the tower of one of Boston’s most famous historical sites.
Sources for Further Research
Fischer, David Hackett. Paul Revere’s Ride. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Martello, Robert. Midnight Ride, Industrial Dawn: Paul Revere and the Growth of American Enterprise. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.
Stickney, Edward and Evelyn Stickney. The Bells of Paul Revere, his Sons & Grandsons. Rev. ed. [Bedford, Mass., 1976].
Stickney, Edward and Evelyn Stickney. Revere Reverberations. Typescript, 1998. "This notebook covers the period of bell casting by Paul Revere, his sons and grandsons, from 1792-1838."
Triber, Jayne E. A True Republican: the Life of Paul Revere. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.
The blog post, "Paul Revere's Ride" describes the three manuscripts Revere wrote about his famous ride to Lexington in 1775 and provides links to web presentations of these documents.
The Massachusetts Historical Society owns a large collection of manuscripts relating to Paul Revere and his descendants. Please see the collection guide to the Revere family papers.
Two examples of Paul Revere's engravings are The Bloody Massacre perpetrated on King Street and the Certificate of attendance at John Warren's course on anatomy.