Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Elegance of Bell Pulls

Imagine yourself a prosperous lady (or a gentleman) in a time before pluming, electricity, internet and smartphones. Let's say you are sitting in your morning parlor and reading a french novel. But suddenly, oh no, you need something. Maybe you feel ill from all the abductions and horrors in the novel and need your smelling salts. Or maybe you feel a bit peckish and want to have some tea. Or what if nature calls and you need the chamber pot. What do you do? You must call a servant.

Suitors scramble to save a woman the effort of having to pull a bell pull, James Gillray, 1805
Most large households in the 18th to 20th centuries were equipped with bell pulls connected to a complicated network of pulleys that would go to a central board in the servant's area. The bells were labeled to inform the servants which rooms required their attention.

Bell board in the servant's area in Downton Abbey 
The bell pulls were usually cords or strips of fabric with a tassel at the end, often ornate and beautiful things, embroidered, painted, beaded and decorated. You can still find some truly gorgeous bell pulls in museums and private collections.

Bell pull, textile, metal. Source: National Trust

Bell pull, 1865, velvet, silk, brass. Source: V&A Museum 

Bell pull, 1820-1830, Russia, cotton, silk, beads. Source: Mikhailovskoye     

Bell pull, Austria, beads, thread, camel hair. Source: Tara 

Bell pull,1820-1850, net, thread, beads. Source: Tara

Bell pull, 1800-1850, Russia, beads, silk, canvas. Source: Tsaritsyno 

Bell pull, 1820-1850, England, beads, brass? Source: Cottrell  House

Some bell pulls were not just ornate decorations, they also carried hidden messages and clever riddles.  
Bell pull,  1820-1830, Russia, bronze, beads, canvas. Source: State Hermitage Museum  
This beautifully made bell pull with a gilded bronze handle and embroidered with small beads contains a secret message that can be read by anyone who knows enough botany. The secret word is formed by the first letters of the names of these flowers. The bell pull should be read from left to right, though when hung, the bell pull would have been read bottom to top.
If we try to decipher the text, this is what we see:

E – Ericka (erica)
R – Rose (rose)
I – Iris (iris)
N – Nelke (carnation)
N – Nymphea (water lily)
E – Erdbeere (wild strawberries)
R – Ringelblume (marigold)
U – Uvularia (merrybell)
N – Narcis (daffodil)
G - Gefüllte Tagetes (type of marigold)

All together it spells 'Erinnerung', German for 'memory' or 'remembrance'. This wonderful deciphering comes courtesy of Julia.   

While we do not usually have servants in our homes to call with bells or otherwise, bell pulls could still make a beautiful decoration for the dinning or living room. Many embroidery books and magazines carry very pretty  bell pull patterns. There are a few free patterns online as well, for instance here.     

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