Virtual Handbell Museum


A Tribute to Marlow Cowan

It is with great sadness the I share that Marlow Cowan passed away at 97 years young. He was a pioneer in the handbell world and will be greatly missed. He and his wife Frances continued to play at retirement communities until just a few years ago! He transformed old bells into new at his CBR Handbell repair shop for 50+ years, provided sets to churches that were having their bells refurbished, and loaned sets to those wishing to start new handbell ensembles. The Cowans led remarkable lives, always giving back to their community. They logged years (not hours) of volunteer time, including USO performances abroad. You can learn more about their legacy HERE.  Godspeed, Marlow... long life, well lived!


Malmark, Schulmerich, Taylor, and Whitechapel... familiar names in the handbell world, but have you ever heard of the Wells or Shaw foundries?  How about JenCo or Trusonic?  Many companies have manufactured handbells and by sifting through old catalogs, journals, books, and talking to collectors, repairmen and foundries, I've found quite a few.  There is evidence of handbell foundries dating back to the late 1600's, with at least 12 or so in operation between 1850 to 1920.  William Butler’s book, “Musical Handbells,”  lists even more.  Some were in business for a quick minute, while others endure to this day. 

At first glance all these bells look much the same and are easily mistaken for old Whitechapels.  Upon closer inspection you will see subtle differences.  Identifying bells by their fittings is not always accurate because old parts such as felts and leathers may have been replaced over the ages.  Springs, clappers and leather tooling might be different on bells from the same foundry, as improvements or stylistic changes were made.   Owners may have modified bells also.  The Shaw bells I purchased from an estate have very short clapper flights.  One could easily assume this is an identifying trait of that foundry.  Further examination revealed marks indicating the flights were filed down.  Foundries didn't always sign or number bells.  Dating can be tricky even if the bell has founder’s initials, as patterns may have been sold when the business was dissolved.  Sometimes it’s best to get a 2nd opinion.  Such was the case with my Dunn bells, but 3 foundries and 2 experienced collectors verified their pedigree.

The original parts are retained whenever possible during the restoration process.  Felts, pegs, staple pins, and springs normally need to be replaced, but clappers, handguards, and sometimes even handles can be saved.  (My WDs all have the original leather collars, although the handles are new.)  I try to find out as much history as I can on all the bells I purchase, as it is interesting, plus it guards against unknowingly buying stolen bells.  Some of these anecdotes are included in the descriptions or captions. 

NOTE:  These are descriptions of actual bells from private collections.  Since collectors usually do not have samples spanning all the years of production from one particular foundry, they are intended as a guide only.

Acknowledgements, Resources

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