Collecting Antique Horsecar Bells

While most railroad memorabilia collectors think of trains, a few are on the hunt for tiny artifacts that date from the middle 19th century: horsecar bells. Made of brass, and only 3 to 4 inches tall, these small bells were hung from the harnesses of the horses and mules that pulled streetcars - a very rare relic of one of America's earliest forms of public transit.

Horsecars, which began as an offshoot to the horse-drawn omnibus, followed regular routes on steel rails and could be hailed by people wanting to ride. By the 1800s, some 500 horse railways were operating in 300 United States cities and towns, powered by 100,000 horses and mules.

Although horsecars were very convenient, one of the dangers was that they were very quiet. The addition of a bell to the horse harness warned pedestrians and other vehicles that the car was approaching, and to get out of the way. In an amazing turn of events, just as their popularity peaked, the horsecar was usurped by the electric railway. In just a few short years nearly all were gone, driven into sudden extinction by technology.

Perhaps due in part to this dramatically fast demise, very, very few artifacts have survived from the horsedrawn railcar industry. Steel coaches were scrapped, wood and leather articles were not preserved. The horsecar bell is one of the few tangible items that survived as mementoes of this mode of transportation.

You can spot a horsecar bell first by its size: three to four inches tall, brass, almost always with a solid, cast-iron clapper. There will be a slot or a tab top with a hole for attaching it to harness. Some of them still have their original leather straps. Most important, a bell will have a company name or initials in raised letters around its rim, often followed by R.R or RY or CO. Some may have a handle, attached for a conductor to use during the changeover to electric power. Two of the easier to find ones include BROOKLYN CITY RAILWAY and THIRD AVE R.R. Others are simply marked with the name of the foundry where they were made.

As difficult to find artifacts from a very colorful period of American history, these little bells are prized among collectors. They are fascinating additions to any antique bell collection or for someone who enjoys early transportation history.

by: Jane Silvernail

Time's Treasures Railroad & Country

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