Updated 12/29/16 at 10 a.m. to correct a typo.—Editor
On December 1, 2016, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, U.K., issued the following press release:
1st December 2016
Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd announces, with regret, that by May 2017 it will cease its activities at the Whitechapel Road site that it has occupied since its move there in 1738.
The company intends to complete work on all projects presently in hand during the coming months. It will not be entering into new contracts for the time being whilst discussions with the company’s staff and other interested parties regarding the future direction, ownership, and location of the company are ongoing.
The announcement is significant to the British, of course, since the foundry—first established in 1570, during the reign of Elizabeth I—is the oldest manufacturing business in the United Kingdom. But it has significance for Americans, too, including numismatists, as the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was the source of an enduring symbol of American independence: the Liberty Bell.
Appearing on the reverses of commemorative and circulating coins alike, the Liberty Bell was ordered from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1751. Measuring 12 feet in circumference and weighing more than a ton, it was intended to hang in the belfry of the Philadelphia State House. An inscription was requested for the crown, to encircle it in two lines of text:
PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGHOUT ALL THE LAND UNTO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF LEV. XXVVSX
BY ORDER OF THE ASSEMBLY OF THE PROVINCE OF PENSYLVANIA [sic] FOR THE STATE HOUSE IN PHILAD.
(The opening line is from Leviticus 25:10, which ordained a “jubilee year”—that is, every 50 years, all leased or mortgaged lands were to be returned to their owners, and all slaves were to be freed.)
The massive bell was delivered in 1752, and was immediately hung up to be tested. One can imagine the dismay of the onlookers when the clapper struck the rim and the bell promptly cracked.
The ship that had delivered the bell was unable to take the it aboard for the return trip, so the city hired two local metalworkers, John Pass and John Stow, to recast it. The standard bronze alloy for bells was about 77% copper, with the balance tin; the more tin, the nicer the sound, but the more brittle the bell. According to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, “Good bell metal is extremely brittle: metal up to 1″ in thickness can be broken in the palm of the hand by a sharp tap with a 2 lb. hammer. If a bell is struck and not allowed to ring freely, because either the clapper or some part of the frame or fittings are in contact with the bell, then a crack can very easily develop.”
Pass and Stow made a cast of the Whitechapel bell, adding their own inscription—PASS AND STOW / PHILAD / MDCCLIII—below the original. They then melted the 2,000 pounds of bronze, added a bit more copper (1.5 ounces for each original pound of metal) to strengthen it, and recast the bell. When struck, the new bell sounded poorly, so Pass and Snow once again melted the bell, this time adding 0.25% silver.
The new bell, which had an improved (if not particularly lovely) sound, was hung in the State House. Its destiny as a symbol of a great, independent nation was unknown; its functions were to call lawmakers to their meetings, and to announce to the townspeople that it was time to gather, if they pleased, to hear the news read. (Benjamin Franklin concluded one 1755 letter with “Adieu, the Bell rings, and I must go among the Grave ones and talk Politicks.”)
Nearly a quarter-century later, as the British approached Philadelphia in 1777, the bell was moved over jolting roads to Allentown for temporary safekeeping. The metal, which is now known to contain myriad impurities and air bubbles that weakened the integrity of the bronze, was undoubtedly stressed by the trip, and the giant bell was reportedly dropped at least once. An invisible fatigue crack may have begun at that time or in subsequent years; in any case, in 1835, the bell cracked massively. A repair was attempted in 1846, but when the bell was subsequently rung on Washington’s birthday, February 23, the crack widened. After that, the bell was no longer rung, although it was occasionally tapped with a mallet on auspicious occasions.
In 1945, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry offered to melt down and recast the bell so it could be rung properly, but the offer was politely declined by the United States. The crack itself encapsulates the bell’s history, and with it the history of the country. Although it’s unlikely that anyone mentioned the Japanese art of kintsugi at the time, preserving the bell’s flaw resembles that practice, whereby the breaks in repaired pottery are highlighted with gold rather than concealed. The damage becomes a treasured part of the object’s history.
From an Object to a Symbol
The “Liberty Bell” moniker was first applied in 1835 in the Anti-Slavery Record, and as the years passed, the bell slowly accrued its status as a national symbol. In 1926, the Liberty Bell made its debut appearance on American coinage, gracing the back of the Sesquicentennial of American Independence centennial half dollar. The coin was modeled by John R. Sinnock, chief engraver of the U.S. Mint, working from sketches by Philadelphia arts patron and numismatist John Frederick Lewis (who also served as president of the Sesquicentennial Exhibition Association). A little over 141,000 of the commemorative coins were struck, in circulation quality only, at the Philadelphia Mint.
Sinnock later designed the Franklin half dollar, which debuted in 1948. The reverse of the Franklin half bears a near likeness of the Liberty Bell used on the earlier Sesquicentennial coin, but slightly larger in proportion to the diameter. The circulation strikes, struck in 90% silver, were produced at the Philadelphia and Denver Mints from 1948 through 1963 (excluding 1955 and 1956 for Denver), and at the San Francisco Mint in 1949 and 1951–1954. Proofs began to be struck in Philadelphia in 1950 and continued for the duration of the series, which was supplanted by the Kennedy design in 1964.
The Liberty Bell made its return to U.S. coinage on the reverse of the dual-dated 1776–1976 Bicentennial silver dollars. The Bicentennial coinage designs were chosen in an open contest, in a process familiar to followers of modern U.S. Mint practices. The silver dollar’s chosen reverse, designed by Dennis R. Williams, features the Liberty Bell superimposed over the face of the Moon. (The Moon was a natural choice for the Eisenhower dollar, which, during all other years, depicted a likeness of the Apollo 11 mission patch, in celebration of the Moon landing.)
The dual-dated Bicentennial dollars were produced for two years, 1975 and 1976. During the early part of 1975, the reverse design was in comparatively low relief, and the typeface in the legend was thick and bold. The dies were soon modified to sharpen the design and refine the lettering. The resulting coins are now described as Variety 1 and Variety 2. While the Variety 1 dies were in use, the coins were issued in a copper-nickel-clad composition from the Philadelphia and Denver Mints (circulation strikes) and the San Francisco Mint (Proofs). The Variety 1 dies were also used for silver-clad coins, both circulating and Proof, struck at the San Francisco Mint. The Variety 2 dies were used for copper-nickel-clad circulating coins from Philadelphia and Denver, and copper-nickel-clad Proofs from San Francisco. One, lone silver-clad Proof from the Variety 2 dies, struck at Philadelphia, is known to exist.
Although its use on coinage has been limited to those three issues, the Liberty Bell has also appeared on scores of privately struck silver rounds, and has even been depicted on coins from other countries (usually struck to appeal to American collectors).
The Liberty Bell and the Modern United States
In many ways, the Liberty Bell is a more accurate symbol of the United States than the eagle or the American flag. A product of the “old country,” it traveled by ship to the American colonies, where it was re-created again and again—due both to necessity, after it first cracked, and to a desire to make it better than it was before. Each reworking brought in new materials, new qualities. The result was never perfect, but its imperfection became a part of its great identity.
Whitechapel’s Liberty Bell page concludes with a mixed sense of humor and pride:
The Whitechapel Foundry’s connection with the Liberty Bell was reestablished in 1976, the year of the US Bicentennial. First, there was a group of about thirty or so ‘demonstrators’ from the Procrastinators Society of America who mounted a mock protest over the bell’s defects and who marched up and down outside the Foundry with placards proclaiming WE GOT A LEMON and WHAT ABOUT THE WARRANTY? We told them we would be happy to replace the bell—as long as it was returned to us in its original packaging. Concurrently (i.e., from about 1968 to 1976) we also produced around 15 full-size, 2,400 one-fifth size, and 200 one-ninth size replicas of the bell for the Boston-based Limited Editions Collectors Society of America Inc. Finally, and most pleasingly, Whitechapel was also commissioned to cast the 12,446 lb. Bicentennial Bell that year, which now resides in Philadelphia with its illustrious predecessor and which bears the inscription:
FOR THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
FROM THE PEOPLE OF BRITAIN
4 JULY 1976
LET FREEDOM RING
In 2001, the 250th anniversary of the casting of the original, Whitechapel was commissioned to cast a replica of the Liberty Bell. The connection continues.
Mint News Blog wishes all the best for the Whitechapel owners and employees, wherever the future takes them. ❑
A few random facts:
- For many years, a rumor persisted that the designer John Sinnock’s initials, JS (as placed on the Roosevelt dime), stood for “Joseph Stalin.”
- The Sesquicentennial half dollar’s obverse depicts jugate busts of Washington and Calvin Coolidge—the latter is the only president to appear on a U.S. coin during his own lifetime.
- The Sesquicentennial commemorative is also the first U.S. coin to bear private advertising, as it includes the “Pass and Stow” inscription.
- According to Wikipedia, the Mercury spacecraft that astronaut Gus Grissom flew on July 21, 1961, was dubbed Liberty Bell 7. Mercury capsules were somewhat bell-shaped, and a crack was painted on this one to mimic that on the original bell. Liberty Bell 7 became the only Mercury capsule to suffer an integrity failure.
“The Liberty Bell.” National Park Service.
“The Advertising Half Dollar.” N.O.W. News, January 4, 2012, pp. 23-24. (Reprinted from American Heritage). Accessed via the Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University.
“Liberty Bell.” Wikipedia.
“The Story of the Liberty Bell.” Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
“The Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25).” Theology of Work Project.