Friday, September 15, 2017

Handbells, Cowbells and Jingle Bells - a History of American Handbell Choirs

History always repeats itself.

In 1926, the humorist Abe Martin looked back – and not fondly – on the glut of Swiss Bell Ringers in the previous century:

Yes, Swiss bell ringers wuz as thick an’ common as wild pigeons.  Some times they’d show up in coveys, an’ mebbe some times ther’d be as few as four, dependin’ on how long they’d been travelin’. . . .

[N]o good reason has ever been given fer th’great epidemic o’ Swiss bell ringers tha swept o’er th’ United States durin’ th’ period between 1867 an’ 1874 – how it started, who instigated it, an’ how it wuz finally fought back.

The Tribune (Coshocton, Ohio), July 10, 1926, page 2.

What Abe did not know, however, was that the “Swiss” bell ringers was a British Invasion, much like one more than a century later.

In 1964, a popular, long-haired musical group from Lancashire, England (Liverpool was still in Lancashire in 1964) landed in New York City after making a name for themselves in England.   They set the musical world on fire and created a musical legacy that has survived for more than a half-century.

You know who I’m talkin’ about. You hear their music every day. They were the Beatles.

Promotional image for The Beatles’ album, Seargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

In 1844, a popular, long-haired musical group from Lancashire, England (predominantly from Oldham, near Manchester) landed in New York City after making a name for themselves in England.  They set the musical world on fire and created a musical legacy that has survived for more than a century and a half.

You probably don’t know who I’m talkin’ about.  They were the “Lancashire Bell Ringers” – the first (and perhaps only) handbell choir to achieve superstar status, performing for British Royalty, at least two American Presidents, the Speaker of the House, the Governor of Canada and the King of France. 

The Illustrated London News, Volume 2, Number 54, May 13, 1843, page 330.

For their first US tour, their promoter P. T. Barnum gave them a new name and a new look.  He told them to grow out their moustaches, dressed them up in the Sergeant Peppery uniforms and called them the “Swiss Bell Ringers.”  It was more exotic and besides, their thick Lancashire accents were foreign enough to fool the average American.  They were also referred to as “Campanologians,” Campanologia being Greek for “the study of bells.”

Promotional image for the Swiss Bell Ringers’ sheet music, Bell Quadrilles (as performed by the Swiss Bell Ringers), 1844[i].

The Swiss Bell Ringers’ influence may not have been as far-reaching as the Beatles, but it was long-lasting.  Their name, “Swiss Bell Ringers,” became the generic term for handbell choirs, even when there were no pretensions of being Swiss.  A long succession of imitators has kept the handbell tradition alive for more than a century.

Their influence may also extend beyond Christmas carols, generally, to perhaps the most iconic secular Christmas song specifically – “Jingle Bells.”  Long before Christopher Walken had a fever for “more cowbell baby!” in Saturday Night Live’s parody of Blue Oyster Cult, several blackface Minstrel troupes routinely performed burlesques of the “Campanalogians” billed as “Cowbellogians.”  Some of those troupes performed sleighing songs.  The Celebrated Original Nightingale Ethiopian Serenaders, for example, performed the unfortunately-named “Darkie Sleighing Party” in a “Cowbellogian” routine as early as 1849.

The Pell and Trowbridge minstrels performed a similar act called, “Cow-Bell-O-Gians: or, Swiss Bell Ringers,” during the years 1858 and 1859; and in 1857, their leader, Johnny Pell gave the first-ever public performance of “Jingle Bells” at theater owned by the man to whom the song was dedicated.  It is not much of a stretch to imagine that he might have sung “Jingle Bells” in one of his later Cowbellogian performances, or given its initial performance in the same style.


The art of “change ringing,” the structured ringing of tuned sets of bells in church towers, originated in Britain in about the 17th Century. 

WIKIPEDIA: Change ringing is the art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a controlled manner to produce variations in their striking sequences. This may be by method ringing in which the ringers commit to memory the rules for generating each change, or by call changes, where the ringers are instructed how to generate each new change by calls from a conductor. This creates a form of bell music which is continually changing, but which cannot be discerned as a conventional melody.

The number of permutations, or changes, that a particular group of bells, or peal, could produced can be determined with mathematical precision based on the numbers of bells, the sizes of the bells, and the time it takes for the various of the bells to swing back and forth.  The art of change ringing includes identifying interesting or pleasing combinations of changes, or playing as many different sets of changes as possible in succession, without repetition.

As explained in the mid-1800s:

Ringing-clubs are common all over England.  They mostly consist of the regular “professionals” attached to the parish belfry, and of ambitious amateurs “gaping for vacancies.”  . . .

In change-ringing no melody is attempted, for it is an arithmetical rather than a musical science.  Its theory is simple, though the practice requires great nicety and attention.  Let us suppose an octave of bells to be numbered from one to eight, a man to each bell-rope; if they be struck in regular succession, so as to produce the diatonic scale, that is a simple; but when the succession of bells is changed, as 1, 3, 5, 8, the ringer No. 3 must take care to succeed the stroke of no. 1, and so on.  Perhaps the next series of sounds immediately to follow No. 8 will be 2, 5, 7, 2, and thus almost innumerable changes can be effected.  Indeed a single but intricate peal – such as grandsire-triples – will take several hours performing, so numerous are the changes it contains.

Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, Number 591, Saturday, May 27, 1843, page 149.

Handbell Ringers

For practical reasons, they eventually developed smaller sets of handbells for change ringers to practice without the inconvenience, and added noise, of getting everyone access to the tower bells.

As every member of a large club cannot have sufficient access to the belfry, they provide themselves with small hand-bells to practice with.  Sometimes great dexterity is thus attained not only in change-ringing, but in the production of tunes. 

Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, Number 591, Saturday, May 27, 1843, page 149.

The practice of playing tunes on handbells developed sometime before 1809:

Chevely Park, Cambridgeshire, the seat of the Duke of Rutland, was . . . a scene of joy and festivity in honour of the day. . . .  During dinner they were enlivened by a party of hand-bell ringers, who played many loyal airs.

Stamford Mercury, November 10, 1809, page 3.

Handbells were common enough in 1810 that a book about the typical sports and pastimes of England included an image of someone playing two handbells:

Joseph Strutt, Glig-Gamena Angel-Deod, or, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, London, White and Co., 2d Edition, 1810, Plate 25 (detail).

The joculator, dancing before the fictitious goat depicted upon the twenty-fifth plate, has two large hand bells, and nearly of a size; but in general, they are regularly diminished, from the largest to the least; and ten or twelve of them, rung in rounds, or changes, by a company of ringers, sometimes one to each bell, but more usually every ringer has two. 

The same book described a one-man handbell band:

I have seen a man in London, who I believe is now living, ring twelve bells at one time; two of them were placed upon his head; he held two in each hand; one was affixed to each of his knees; and two upon each foot; all of which he managed with great adroitness, and performed a vast variety of tunes.”

Joseph Strutt, Glig-Gamena Angel-Deod, or, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, London, White and Co., 2d Edition, 1810, page 259.

The man was Roger Smith, a weaver by training, who switched careers when he lost his vision (or at least some vision) due to injury:
He constructed a belfry near Broad-wall, containing a peal of eight bells, from which he obtained a tolerable livelihood; which he was obliged to quit, in consequence of some building improvements.  He has ever since exercised his art in the most public places, on eight, ten, and sometimes twelve bells; and frequently accompanies the song-tunes with his voice, which adds considerably to the effect, though he has neither a finished nor a powerful style of execution.  While he performs upon the hand-bells (which he does sitting) he wears a hairy cap, to which he fixes two bells; two he holds in each hand; one on each side, guided by a string connected with the arm; one on each knee, and one on each foot.

James Caulfield, The Lives and Portraits of Remarkable Characters, London, W. Lewis, 1819, New Edition.

In a country known for bell ringers, Lancashire was the center of the action:

The ringers are stated to be natives of Lanacashire, a county celebrated in the annals of Campanology.

The Illustrated London News, Volume 2, Number 54, May 13, 1843, page 330.

A Liverpool guidebook made a similar point in 1844:

The Lancashire bell-ringers have always been celebrated for their skill in the art.  In 1807, there was a society of famous bell-ringers attached to this church, called the “Liverpool College Youths.”

Pictorial Liverpool, a New and Complete Hand-Book for Resident, Visitor, and Tourist, Liverpool, Lacey, [1844], page 256.

Reports of a bell-ringers’ festival in Lancashire in 1841 gives a sense of the regional popularity:

Preston Chronicle (Preston, Lancashire), July 24, 1841, page 3.

And in a region famous for its bell-ringers, the town of Oldham stood out, although even its bell-ringers were not without critics.  In 1827, some of Oldham’s bell-ringers were sued by a neighbor who was disturbed by their handbell practices.  The judge threw the case out:

This decision has given universal satisfaction to the inhabitants of Oldham; as it is well known, that there are few towns in England, where the art of change ringing has been brought to greater perfection than by the amateurs of Oldham.

Manchester Guardian, July 28, 1827, page 4.

The Oldham ringers were confident enough in their skills that they accepted an all-England challenge in 1835 (no news on who won):

Shrewsbury Chronicle, April 17, 1835, page 4.

As their fame grew, they were eventually “discovered” by a Scottish magician who gave them their start in show business. John Henry Anderson achieved worldwide fame as the “Wizard of the North.”  He is the magician generally credited with inventing (or at least popularizing) the iconic rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick. 

He also had an eye for talent and showmanship.  He brought a group of Lancashire Bell Ringers to London in 1841:

Theatre Royal, Adelphi. – The GREAT WIZARD of the NORTH’s PALACE of FASHION and WONDER . . . .

The Great Wizard of the North begs to inform the Musical, the Bell-ringers of London, and the Public generally, that he has engaged the SEVEN HARMONIOUS YOUTHS; or, Lancashire Bell-ringers, whose extraordinary performances on fourteen bells has created a great sensation in the North of England.  The sensation having reached the Wizard, he has engaged them, and imported them direct from the north.  They will have the honour of appearing for the first time before the public of the metropolis between the parts of the Wizard’s performance, pealing forth their “merrie strains,” recalling the memory of the “golden days of good Queen Bess” and “merrie England.”

The Examiner (London), Number 1747, July 24, 1841, page 478.

The “Wizard of the North” brought the handbell wizards of Northern England back to London for a return engagement in 1843:

The Wizard of the North, as Mr. Anderson calls himself, has drawn his magic circle at the Adelphi . . . .  He has also engaged the Campanologian Band, as the bell-ringers are called; whose performance is quite as curious in its way as that of the Russian horn-blowere: so, what with the changing rings and ringing changes – deceiving the eyes and dinning the ears – the senses are utterly confounded, to the great delight of the visitors.

The Spectator (London), May 13, 1843, page 15.

In 1844, like Brian Epstein catching a Beatles’ show at the Cavern Club in Liverpool in 1961, P. T. Barnum chanced upon the Lancashire Bell Ringers in Ireland while on tour with Tom Thumb.  Barnum arranged a meeting with the Lancashire lads, in Liverpool fittingly enough, where he hatched his plan:

One of my stipulations was, that they should suffer their moustaches to grow, assume a picturesque dress, and be known as the “Swiss Bell Ringers.”  They at first objected, in the broad and almost unintelligible dialect of Lancashire, because, as they said, they spoke only the English language, and could not pass muster as Swiss people; but the objection was withdrawn when I assured them, that if they continued to speak in America as they had just spoken to me, they might safely claim to be Swiss, or anything else, and no one would be any wiser.

P. T. Barnum, The Autobiography of P. T. Barnum, London, Ward & Lock, 1855, page 134.

After a farewell performance in Oldham in early August, 1844, the newly christened “Swiss Bell Ringers” made their US debut at Niblo’s Garden in New York City.  They stayed in the United States for nearly three years, performing continuously throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and Cuba for three years. 

About half-way through their US Tour, a brief article about their schedule gave a sense of their hectic pace:

Swiss Bell-Ringers. – It is said the Swiss Bell-ringers have travelled on this continent 25,700 miles, given 329 concerts, and sold 147,803 tickets, their expenses being $27,370.  They commenced at Niblo’s in September, 1845 [(sic)].  In even 100 days, they have given no less than 94 concerts, and travelled over 1900 miles.

The Daily Delta (New Orleans, Louisiana), February 14, 1846, page 2.

They returned to a hero’s welcome in Oldham in September 1847.

Manchester Guardian (Manchester, England), June 19, 1847, page 8.

Manchester Guardian, August 18, 1847, page 7.

P. T. Barnum brought them back to the United States in 1850.  This time they performed in his “museum” in New York City and billed themselves as the Lancashire Bell Ringers.  Perhaps they changed their name to distinguish themselves from other “Swiss Bell Ringers” who had popped up during their three year absence.  The success of their first tour ensured that English handbells would be erroneously known as “Swiss” handbells for generations.


The Beatles begat the Turtles, the Monkees, and the Partridge Family.  The Lancashire/“Swiss” Bell Ringers begat the “American Bell Ringers,” “Germania Bell Ringers,” and the Peak and Berger Families of “Swiss” or “German” Bell Ringers, and any number of other imitators. 

The “Campanologian Brothers” or “American Bell Ringers” of New York City[ii] may have been the first.  They performed throughout New York and New England from as early as May 1845[iii], just nine months after the arrival of the Lancashire/Swiss ringers.  They had a direct connection to the Lancashire ringers, which may explain their rapid mastery of the bells.

Baltimore Sun, December 3, 1844, page 3.

The original “Swiss Bell Ringers” shared the stage on occasion with a popular flutist named C. L. Underer, whose name appears on accounts of their performances in Baltimore and Washington DC in December 1844.  C. L. Underer also regularly performed with the “Campanologian Brothers,” as did his brother John Underer, a pianist, composer and music teacher. 

Despite sometimes billing themselves as the “American Bell Ringers,” they appear to have adopted the style of dress of the “Swiss Bell Ringers”.

Burlington Free Press (Burlington, Vermont), June 27, 1845, page 2.

Perhaps C. L. Underer’s exposure to the original “Swiss” ringers gave him a good understanding of the techniques involved, and he and his brother were able to train up a group of homegrown ringers to play as well, or better (at least as described by the hometown press):

It seems to be the general verdict that they already excel their so-called “Swiss” rivals, though they have had but six months’ practice.”

The New York Herald, June 1, 1845, page 1.

C. L. Underer’s pianist brother John also had a connection with P. T. Barnum.  At least he had one a few years later when he toured the world as the accompanist for Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightengale,” whom Barnum famously lured to the United States with the promise (and delivery) of huge sums of money.  She is said to have earned $350,000, and Barnum $500,000, in 1850 money, about $10 and $15 million today, respectively.

But despite the possible connections, or perhaps because of the connections, the competition created a minor kerfuffle off in Buffalo:

Ding, Dong. – The Campanologians recently visited Buffalo, N. Y., when they found that a rival company of “native artists” had been there before them, claiming to be as good the genuine Swiss Bell Ringers, and asking patronage on the score of their nativity.  The Simon Pures issued a card denouncing the “counterfeit presentment” as an imposture and humbug.  Several of the presses in that vicinage have taken the home-brewed article under protection, and denounce the foreign band in turn as impostors – they claiming to be Swiss, when in fact they are Lancashire English weavers, who never saw the land of Tell.

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), June 22, 1845, page 2.

In 1849, two years after the departure and one year before the return of the original “Swiss Bell Ringers,” another group claiming a connection with them performed throughout New York and New England.

This company is composed of two Albanians, one of the original Swiss Bell Ringers, and a German Musician [(presumably Herr Freebertshyser)], and his three boys, 13, 11, and 9 years of age.  

Burlington Free Press, July 20, 1849, page 2.

Although the Lancashire troupe reportedly returned home in 1847, it is possible that one or more of them stayed in the US.  Years later, the obituary of Samuel H. Birtles, who died in Tombstone, Arizona in 1886, claimed that he had been the manager for the original “Swiss Bell Ringers” from Lancashire from the time of their first performances in London in 1841 through at least their first European tour after their return to England.[iv]  It is difficult to check the claim, but intriguingly, Birtles’ last name is the same name as town in Lancashire just a stone’s throw from Oldham.

It is unclear whether one of them actually performed with Freebertshyser or whether it was mere advertising puffery.  And curiously, although their early advertising images show a modest form of dress, they later affected the extravagant costume of the original “Swiss” bell-ringers, presumably to capitalize on their greater level of fame.

Albany Evening Journal, June 21, 1852, page3.

The Peak Family (sometimes spelled Peake), who started performing on the handbells in about 1852, became perhaps the longest-running, best-known American handbell act of the 1800s.  Although some sources credit them with introducing handbells in the United States in the 1830s, William Peak gave a different account of events: 

It was in the early fifties, and all my children were able to perform well on the harp and other musical instruments, while my wife had gained fame everywhere with her soprano voice. . . . Well, Barnum had just brought out some bell-ringers from Switzerland, and I saw and heard them at his American museum in New York.  From that moment I was enthusiastic over Swiss bell-ringing, and importing my own bells from Switzerland, I organized the family troupe, which gained almost instantaneous popularity and distinction.

Crawford Avalanche (Grayling, Michigan), March 12, 1896, page 6.

Peak’s comments, made several decades later, align with the contemporary evidence.  The earliest published notices of Peak Family performances date to 1846 and mention only singing.  Their earliest handbell advertisements appeared in 1852:

Burlington Free Press (Vermont), April 22, 1852, page 2.

The Peak family performed together into the 1880s, but the elder Peaks wound up in the poorhouse by the early 1890s. 
Morning Journal and Courier (New Haven, Connecticut), February 23, 1885, page 6.

Their set of bells, however, may have kept ringing into the 1950s:

The oldest set of Swiss Hand Bells in the United States will be featured in a unique concert to be given by the Mason Swiss Bell Ringers, nationally known novelty musicians, at the First Baptist Church . . . .

The set of bells they use in this concert was brought to the United States by a group of English Hand Bell Ringers in 1847 and were used by the Peak Family Swiss Bell Ringers in New England, who were known as the original all-American group of Swiss Bell Ringers, for many years.

About 1900, Mr. William Ward of Burlington, Vt., purchased the bells and for many years he and his wife and son gave concerts on the bells and other novelties under the name of the Ward Trio.  Last summer, during a visit with Mr. Ward, Mr. and Mrs. Mason purchased this famous set and began using the bells in their concerts as they were so superior in tone to the bells they had been using for 17 years.

Muncie Evening Press (Muncie, Indiana), November 2, 1950, page 25.

The Mason Swiss Bell Ringers were the Reverend and Mrs. Bernard Mason of Los Angeles, evangelists and musicians, who entertained church and civic groups across the country from at least the mid-1930s and into the late-1950s.

The Peak Family’s influence also extended to another popular handbell troupe from the 1860s and 1870s, the Berger Family of German Bell Ringers, who struck out on their own after some of them married into the Peak family.[v]

The Berger Family went on to achieve even greater success than their parents/in-laws – their secret to success? – give the public what they want:

Sol Smith Russell was the great drawing magnet that made the fortunes of theBerger family of bell ringers, while the Peake family, with fully as much musical talent, but without the comic singer, struggled along for years against adverse “luck” before a total collapse.  It was called luck but it was bad management.  If musical managers in the present day would only heed the lesson and bring music the people wish to hear, to mingle with their “classical” they would reap the reward with full houses. – Riverside Enterprise.

 The Evening Transcript (San Bernardino, California), May 26, 1902, page 15.

And their success was their undoing, at least as a handbell act, although it set them all up for long careers in show business.  The Berger Family stopped performing as a group when Sol Russell Smith’s career took off.  Fred Berger managed Sol’s business affairs for several decades, before managing theaters in New York City (the Columbia and Poli’s).  Fred’s brother Henry managed an even more famous actress, Madame Modjeska.  And their brother B. G. Berger managed a “German” comedian named George S. Knight, and also worked as an advance man for Sol Russell Smith.  Their sister Anna Teresa became a successful solo coronet player who commanded as much as $200 per week.

Many other lesser-known families also plied the handbell trade throughout the late-1800s and into the early-1900s; acts like the Spaulding Brothers Swiss Bell Ringers (1860s), Fritz German Bell Ringers (1870s), the Royce Swiss Bell Ringers (1880s-1890s), the Oake Family (1870s-1890s), Smith’s Swiss Bell ringers (1870s-1880s), the James Family of Swiss Bell Ringers (1890s-1900s), the Trousdale Family of Swiss Bell Ringers (1890s), and the Musical Georgettes (1910s).

The Shipp Brothers toured nationally throughout the 1890s, and one of them, H. G. Shipp, fronted the “Imperial Bell Ringers” during the early 1900s.  

Imperial Hand-Bell Ringers’ flyer (University of Iowa Digital Library Item #63560).

 Since the Shipp brothers were based out their hometown of Boston, Massachusetts, it seems likely that they may have crossed paths at some point with Margaret Shurcliff, the person sometimes wrongly, or at least misleadingly, credited with having “introduced” handbell ringing in the United States.

Margaret Shurcliff’s father, Arthur Nichols, played an active role in restoring the bells in Boston’s Old North Church, and played an active role in having sets of bells installed in several other bell-towers, including, the Perkins School for the Blind, the Groton School, Memorial Tower in Hingham, Massachusetts, the University of Chicago, and the Church of the Advent in Boston.[vi]  His daughter Margaret inherited his love for bells, and even set precedence in 1902 when she reportedly became the first American woman to ring a complete tower bell peal in England.[vii]

At some point in the early 1900s, she is said to have brought back a set of handbells from Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, after which “it became a tradition of the family to ring these bells on festive occasion, and in 1923 she organized the Beacon Handbell Ringers.”[viii] In 1937, she organized the New England Guild of English Handbell Ringers, the forerunner of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers, established in 1954.[ix]

Although Mrs. Shurcliff may not have “introduced” handbell ringing in the United States, she certainly played a prominent role in taking it out of the exclusive purview of vaudevillians and show-people, to establish it as a “legitimate” avocation for more genteel folk.

It must have been a long, difficult process to change the perception of handbell choirs from an amusing vaudeville gimmick to a high-class entertainment.  Just as the Peak Family had difficulty retaining an audience for their classical repertoire against the Berger’s embrace of popular music and comedy, Margaret Shurcliff had an uphill battle in changing the attitudes of people used to seeing the likes of Vic Faust, “Rube Musician” and Champion Swiss Bell Ringer of the World.

Santa Ana Register (Santa Ana, California), May 3, 1913, page 4.

The Pittsburgh Press (Pennsylvania), Julye 28, 1931, page 26.

Vic worked in “rube” wardrobe, rube being a term applied to farmers, many of whom bore the name of Reuben.  His makeup consisted of wire-rimmed spectacles, jutting chin whiskers, and a bright red wig of hemp which stuck out from his head at all angles.  The skintightness of his too-short trousers was accentuated by his suspender-wrinkled shirt and grotesque slap shoes which buttoned up over his ankles and stuck out in front of him like the feet of a well-shod duck.  Vic played, among other things, the violin, a musical saw, chimes, and a one-string fiddle.  He also coaxed melodies out of children’s toys, whistles with sliding handles, leaking balloons, and a tiny xylophone.

Betty Bryant, Here Comes The Showboat!, Lexington, Kentucky, The University Press of Kentucky, 2015, page 119.

The combination such “low” forms of comedy, with handbell ringing, is nearly as old as handbell ringing in the United States itself.

James Lord Pierpont wrote “Jingle Bells” in 1857.  The original sheet music, under the name “One Horse Open Sleigh,” was dedicated to “John P. Ordway, the founder of Ordway’s Aeolian Minstrel Troupe, a detail that has often gone unnoticed.”[x]  Ordway’s theater in Boston Massachusetts was the site of the first-ever public performance of “Jingle Bells” on September 15, 1857, when the blackface minstrel Johnny Pell sang the song in a bit entitled, “Dandy Darkies.”[xi] 

John P. Ordway was more than a showman.  He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1861 and was “one of the first surgeons in the field” after the outbreak of the Civil War.[xii]  He claims to have performed the “first surgical operation” of that war on April 23, 1861, on a man evacuated to Annapolis from Fort Sumter.[xiii] 

There is no direct evidence that Pell’s version was accompanied by handbells, but it would not be a surprise if it had been.  Although blackface comedian, Johnny Pell, was the first person to sing “Jingle Bells” in public, he was not the first person to sing a “sleighing song” in black-face.  Nor would he have been the first blackface performer to sing a “sleighing song” with handbell accompaniment.  During the decade before “Jingle Bells’” premier in 1857, several blackface minstrel troupes sang “sleighing songs,” performed burlesques of the “Campanologians” or “Swiss Bell Ringers,” and in at least one case sang a “sleighing song” with handbell accompaniment. 

In 1846, the Harmoneons troupe of black-face minstrels sang “the sleighing song, ‘O, swift we go o’er the fleecy snow,’” in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, albeit with no mention of bell ringing.[xiv]  “O Swift We Go” was a popular “sleighing song,” words by J. T. Fields, that was set to music by at least four different composers between 1840 and 1860.  Fields’ words were also suitable to sing to the tune of an old sailing song, “Some Love to Roam” (“Some love to roam, o’er the dark sea foam, Where the shrill winds whistle free . . . ”) suggesting that the lyrics may have been intended to evoke the feeling of sailing while sleighing.

Sheet Music cover art, Music by Knight, 1840.
O swift we go o’er the fleecy snow,
When moon beams sparkle round;
When hoofs keep time to music’s chime,
As merrily on we bound.
. . .
With a laugh and a song, we glide along
Across the fleeting snow;
With friends beside, how swift we ride
On the beautiful track below!
. . .

One year after the Harmoneons sang “O Swift We Go,” several troupes of blackface minstrels performed burlesques of the “Swiss Bell Ringers.”

In July 1847, the Christy’s Minstrels’ lampooned the “Campanologians” in Detroit:

Go and see them.  The “Cowbellogian” Burlesque is worth double the price of a ticket.

Detroit Free Press (Michigan), July 16, 1847, page 2.

Not to be outdone, the “Celebrated and Original Band of Sable Harmonists” added a handbell act to their show.  The act was arranged by Richard Hooley who, until recently, had been the leader of Christy’s Minstrels[xv]:

They also take great pleasure in stating that from the valuable acquisitions lately made to the Band, they are now enabled to give the celebrated and laughable burlesque on the


As originally arranged by Messrs Wells and Hooley at Buffalo, N. Y.

The entertainment will consist of three parts – 
1st – As the Exquisite or Northern Negro, with popular parodies, &c.
2nd – As the Sable Bell Ringers.
3rd – As the Plantation or Southern Darkie, &c.

The Cincinnati Enquirer (Ohio), September 4, 1847, page 3.

Later the same month, the Buckleys’ “Peedee Ethiopian Opera Troupe”[xvi] performed a similar act in Baltimore:

Their  songs are of the very best kind and new to us; and to wind up with the Cowbellogians caps the climax.

The Baltimore Sun, September 23, 1847, page 2.

The Buckleys would later be known for “Buckleys Celebrated Sleighing Song,” written by A. Sedgewick and published in 1853.  

While jingle, jingle, jingle, jing,
The bells so merry ring,
Of sleigh bells and of pretty belles,
Oh gaily will we sing . . . .

Buckley’s Sleighing song was well-known enough that a published script for a burlesque on “Robinson Crusoe,” performed in 1860 and published in London, included a stage direction to sing a song to the tune of “Buckley’s ‘Sleighing Song.’”[xvii]

Other groups also developed “Cowbellogian” acts:

Daily Stage Guard - Wetumpka Alabama February 17 1849 page 2.

Daily National Whig (Washington DC), March 17, 1849, page 3.

In 1849, George Kunkel’s “Nightingale Ethiopian Serenaders” put two-and-two together, and presented a parody of a popular “sleighing song” in the burlesque style of the Campanologians:

Baltimore Sun (Maryland), May 1, 1849, page 3.

Kunkel’s “ Cowbellogians” were no amateurs.  As one paper put it, they were “too good a representation to be considered a burlesque of the Swiss bell ringers.”

The Baltimore Sun (Maryland), April 20, 1849, page 2.

Five years later, Kunkel’s “Nightingale Opera Troupe” still had the song in its repertoire when they sang “Darkie Sleighing Party” in Washington DC, as part of a “Rebuff to Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

Evening Star (Washington DC), December 1, 1854, page 2.
 George Kunkel was not the only performer singing “Darkie Sleighing Party.”  The lyrics to “Darkey Sleighing Party,” sometimes under the title “The Merry Sleigh Bells,” appeared in at least four collections of black-face minstrel songs, published in 1850, 1853, 1854 and 1861.  The earliest version names Nelson Kneass as the composer and notes that it was “sung by Chas. White, at his Melodian Concert Saloon” in New York City.  The date of publication lines up with the earliest known performance of the song in 1849.  Kneass is known to have worked with White in 1848,[xviii] so it is possible the song predates 1849.  It is also possible that the Nightingale Serenaders performed Kneass’ song independently, or that they ripped it off in some form or another, or vice versa.

The lyrics were a natural fit for a handbell act.

The were published with a race-neutral title and race-conscious dialect in 1850:

White’s New Ethiopian Song Book, Philadelphia, T. B. Peterson and Brothers, 1850.

And published with race-conscious title and no dialect in 1853:

The Darkey Sleigh Ride

Jingle, jingle, clear the way,
‘Tis the merry, merry sleigh –
Joyfully we glide along,
Only listen to our song.
Over the bridge, down by the mill,
Then upset upon the hill;
Set ‘em up, the sleigh-bells ring,
While we darkies laugh and sing.


Jingle, jingle, jingle, jingle, jingle, clear the way,
‘Tis the merry, merry, merry, merry, merry sleigh

Go-a-long! &c

Christy’s Plantation Melodies No. 2, Philadelphia, Fisher & Brother, 1853.

I challenge anyone to read the lyrics and not do a double-take at “laugh and sing” in the first verse, or to read the chorus and not start humming:

Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way,
What fun it is to ride and sing in a one horse open sleigh –


 It might be tempting to see this song as the direct inspiration for “Jingle Bells,” but this song was itself a parody of an earlier, popular, straight “sleighing song,” based on a poem written by the Ivy League warrior-poet[xix] George W. Patten (not George S. Patton), who lost a hand at the Battle of Cerro Gordo in the Mexican-American war:

Capt. Geo. W. Patten. – From General Scott’s official dispatch of the battle of Cerro Gorda, published on our first page, our readers will regret to learn that Capt. George W. Patten, the warrior-poet, lost his right hand in that terrible struggle. – Capt. Patten has written some of the finest poetical compositions in the language, and his misfortune will be regretted by the whole people – for the whole people have read his soul-stirring poetical efforts.

However, his misfortune in losing his right hand while bravely fighting the battles of his country, will not utterly prevent him from delighting his hundreds of thousands of admirers in the future.  He will have to do as a brother poet has done for many years, one who writes probably more and better than any man in the Union, as we understand, - write with his left hand.  It will not do at all for him to hang his harp upon the willows – its strings must again be touched, and strains of surpassing beauty and power will echo through the land.

Natchez Daily Courier (Natchez, Mississippi), May 25, 1847, page 2.

Three years before losing his hand, George Patten published the poem that served as the model for Kneass’ “Darkey Sleighing Party”:

The Merry Sleigh.
By Lieut. G. W. Patten, U. S. A.

Jingle! Jingle! Clear the way,
‘Tis the merry-merry sleigh!
As it swiftly scuds along,
Hear the burst of happy song,
See the gleam of glances bright,
Flashing o’er the pathway white,
Jingle! Jingle! How it whirls,
Crowded full of laughing girls.

. . .

Fort Ontartio, N. Y., Dec., 1843.

The Ladies Companion and Literary Expositor (New York), Volume 20, January 1844, page 147.

Sheet music cover art 1844.
 Patten’s poem would be set to music no fewer than four times by no fewer than four composers, twice in 1844 (Saroni and Woodbury) and again in 1852 (Bradbury) and 1856 (Beams).  Woodbury’s 1844 version, written in 2/4 time similar to “Jingle Bells,” introduced the chorus, “jingle, jingle, jingle, jingle, jingle clear the way,” later borrowed by Kneass for “Darkey Sleighing Party” (or “Merry Sleigh Bells”).  Despite the similarities with “Jingle Bells,” there was a difference.  Woodbury’s chorus is played in double-time with respect to the verse – sixteenth notes, instead of eighth notes, unlike “Jingle Bells” that retains the steady eighth-note rhythm of the verse.  I have not seen sheet music for Kneass’s version, so it is unclear whether he followed Woodbury’s lead or made changes that might have more closely anticipated “Jingle Bells.”
Sheet music cover art 1856.

So when James Lord Pierpont was riding around singing “sleighing songs” in his “one-horse open sleigh” in 1857, cooking up his own sleighing song, he might have been singing Fields’ “O Swift We Go,” Patten’s “The Merry Sleigh,” “Buckley’s Celebrated Sleighing Song” or the “Darkies’ Sleighing Party.”  He may even have been thinking of a “Swiss” handbells accompaniment, or perhaps a blackface parody like the “Sable Bell Ringers” or the “Cowbellogians.” 

But I would not read too much into the blackface origin of “Jingle Bells.”  “Sleighing songs” were not the sole province of blackface performers.  The various versions of “O Swift We Go” and “The Merry Sleigh,” for example, were popular “sleighing songs” in their own right.  And in any case, every popular song was grist for the minstrel mill.  “The minstrel show in this period was taking much of the mid-century musical world in America, especially anything with highbrow (with the apparent exception of religious music), and, so to speak, turning it on its ear.”[xx]

Although “Jingle Bells” appears to have been written expressly for a man who ran a blackface minstrel theater, and was first performed in blackface, the lyrics themselves merely reflect all of the standard lyrical conventions of every other milquetoast “sleighing song” of the period, without resort to racial stereotypes or dialect, as had been the case for “The Darkies’ Sleighing Party” a decade earlier.

So sing “Jingle Bells” without guilt, shame or rage – it’s a fun, traditional holiday song. 

And when you do – “More Cowbell Baby!”

[ii] The New York Herald, June 1, 1845, page 1 (“The Campanologian Brothers, from this city, gave a concert at Auburn on Monday evening last . . . .”).
[iii] Auburn Journal and Advertiser (Auburn, New York), May 21, 1845, page 2.
[iv] Daily Tombstone (Tombstone, Arizona), July 31, 1886, page 3 (Under the management of Mr. Birtles this troupe made their first appearance in 1841 . . . .”).
[v] Robert L. Sherman, Actors and Authors, with Composers and Managers who Helped Make them Famous, a Chronological Record and Brief Biography of Theatrical Celebrities from 1750 to 1950, Chicago, 1951, pages 348-349 (“Some of them married into the Berger family, another famous musical family trouping in the early 1850s and later.”).
[vi] Mira Whiting, “Arthur Nichols and Change Ringing,” The North American Guild of Change Ringers (, October 24, 2008 (
[viii] The Morning Herald (Hagerstown, Maryland), August 14, 1959, page 11.
[ix] Margaret Homer (Nichols) Shurcliff,
[x] “Upsotting the ‘One Horse Open Sleigh’: The Blackface Origins of ‘Jingle Bells,’” Kyna Hamill, Medford Historical Society & Museum Newsletter, Winter, 2016
[xii] The Harvard Register (Cambridge, Massachusetts), Volume 1, Number 6, May 1880, page 108.
[xiii] Thomas F. Harrington, The Harvard Medical School; a History, Volume 2, New York, Lewis Publishing Company, 1905, page 925.
[xiv] Pittsburgh Daily Post (Pennsylvania), September 30, 1846, page 2.
[xv] William L. Slout, Editor, Burnt Cork and Tambourines (Clipper Studies in the theatre Number 11), Borgo Press, 2007, Page 161.
[xvi] “Negro Minstrelsy,” Spirit of the South (Rockingham, North Carolina), March 11, 1876, page 1 (“Then, in 1847 or 1848, the Buckley’s started the Peedee Minstrels.”).
[xvii] Henry James Byron, Robinson Crusoe; or, Harlequin Friday and the King of the Caribee Islands!, London, Thomas Hailes Lacy, [date of publication not listed; first performed December 26, 1860], page 12.
[xviii] The New York Herald, December 30, 1848,page 3. “Stoppani Hall . . . will open . . . New Year’s Day, with White’s New Band of Serenaders and Operatic Vocalists . . . .  The whole under the direction of Mr. Nelson Kneass, the celebrated Pianist, Composer, and Guitarist.”
[xix] George W. Patten, a native of Newport, Rhode Island, graduated from Brown University in 1825 before attending the United States Military at West Point.  He was still a student there when he had several poems published in a collection of American poetry.  Samuel Kettell, Specimens of American Poetry, Volume 3, Boston, S. G. Goodrich and Co., 1829.
[xx] “Early Minstrel Show Music, 1843-1852,” Robert B. Winans, Inside the Minstrel Mask, Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy, Annemarie Bean, editor, Wesleyan University Press, 1996, page 161.