How many times have you read of the hero or heroine of a Regency novel ringing the bell for the servant? Did they really do that? Were bell pulls as common as we think they were?
The answer is a somewhat complicated yes and no.
Bells have long been used to summon servants, though during the Regency the idea of summoning them from anywhere in the house was still fairly new.
From the time the small handbell was invented, people have used them to summon servants waiting in the hall or across the room. Simple systems that connected a room to a nearby antechamber were documented during the first decade of the eighteenth century. The idea of a house-wide network of bells wasn’t introduced for another 35 years.
Though the actual creation of the full house servant bell system is debated, the first known advertisement for such a system was in 1744. It worked via a series of copper wires, springs, and pulleys to pass the vibration caused by pulling the cord to the bell in the servants’ area.
With more than 60 years from the introduction of the bell pull to the onset of the Regency, modern thinking would assume the system would be nearly ubiquitous. In places such as Mayfair, where most houses were built after 1750, the bell systems probably were very prevalent.
Jane Austen mentions ringing for servants in Pride and Prejudice when she tells Kitty to ring for Hill. Though we don’t know if this referred to the simpler “pulley bell” of the early 1700s or the household bells of the mid-1700s, it does show that bell systems were not confined to only the fashionable and trendy areas of England.
But what about the old country houses? Some of the sprawling estates our aristocratic heroes and heroines call home were built centuries before the introduction of a bell system. Since many of these families also maintained residences in town, it’s hard to imagine them forgoing the luxury and privacy of the bells when they adjourned to the country.
The answer was pipes and tubes.
Older homes could be fitted with a network of pipes and tubes that acted as conduits for all the bell mechanisms. Plumbers (who were also busy retrofitting homes with the newfangled indoor plumbing) and chimney sweeps often began second careers and bell-hangers.
This wasn’t done everywhere, however, because some houses that installed and external bell (the first doorbells) sometimes places a sign above the pull telling visitors what to do.
Another issue with these spring-based bell systems was maintenance. Getting to a disconnected wire or pulley within the network of refitted tubes could be extremely difficult.
As the bell systems became more and more prevalent in the country homes, the indicator boards advanced. Some would utilize different sizes and tones of bells to allow servants to better hear which room was summoning them. Others created elaborate sets of flaps and labels to let servants see which person had rung.
In the 1840s, electric bell systems began to appear. This limited the amount of cumbersome maintenance and allowed for much more elaborate indicator boards. People of the Regency, however, wouldn’t have seen these as electricity was still little more than a novelty.
The bells were likely a bittersweet invention for servants. While the installation of a bell system meant that a footman didn’t have to stand in the hall for hours awaiting instruction, it also meant that whenever a bell was rung, the servant had to run up the stairs to get the instruction and then back down to see to the request. Over time the addition of speaking tubes and in-house telephones provided more direct communication, but those weren’t to grace English homes until well after the Regency period.