It was only by accident that Paul Revere at 57 years old got into the business of casting bells.
He’d had some experience with bells. As a teen-ager he signed a contract with Christ Church – Boston’s Old North Church — to serve as a bell ringer. And like everyone else in Boston, he understood the importance of bells: they rang to wake people, to summon them to church services, to tell the cook when it was time to start dinner, to mark the passing of a human life.
Revere in 1792 was a member of the New Brick Church, which had a problem: Its bell cracked. He offered to recast it, though he knew nothing about molding and casting bells. He consulted with Aaron Hobart, one of the few people in America who did know about bells.
Hobart probably told him how bells with pleasant, musical tones are notoriously hard to forge: The shape affects the tone, as does the combination of copper, tin, silver, zinc, and lead. Copper from different mines will create different sounds.
Revere’s first bell for the New Brick Church, a 912 pounder, was not terribly successful. It was said to have a harsh tone. But Revere and his sons Paul Jr. and Joseph Warren went ahead, casting 398 bells between 1792 and 1828, first at their North End foundry and after 1804 in Canton, Mass. The bells often bore the inscription “THE LIVING TO THE CHURCH I CALL AND TO THE GRAVE I SUMMON ALL.”
Over time Revere learned the proper composition of metals and used that knowledge in other metallurgical pursuits. In 1794 he was said to be the only man in America who knew anything of the difference between ores and the seven metals.
Revere and Sons made other kinds of bells as well, most notably for the U.S.S. Constitution. They also provided the copper sheathing for Old Ironsides and the Massachusetts Statehouse dome.
Revere, perhaps stung by criticism of that first bell, insisted that a committee approve the sound of a bell before its final sale. He’d cart the bell from his foundry into his back yard, where were assembled a committee of vestrymen or church deacons or selectmen. Small boys from the neighborhood gathered around the bell as well, according to Esther Forbes in Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. She described the Revere bells as beautiful bells, ‘powerful and mellow.’
Revere was casual about recordkeeping. A young man in Farmington, Maine, bought a bell for $500, but Revere forgot to write down his name. Revere did remember the bell was for Farmington Academy, and when he didn’t get paid he had to figure out who to write to. He wrote several threatening letters and finally did get paid.
In 1976, researchers Edward and Evelyn Stickney traveled around the country compiling an inventory of Revere bells. They found 134 inscribed with the Revere name. Most were in Northern New England, but the Stickneys found Revere bells as far away as Savannah, Ga., Washington, D.C., and Tuscaloosa, Ala. There’s even a Revere bell in Asia. His daughter Maria married Joseph Balestier, the first U.S. consul to Singapore. In 1843, she donated a Revere bell to the first Church of St. Andrew’s in Singapore, and it is now in that country’s national museum.
Revere’s first bell was sold in 1901 to St. James’s Episcopal Church in Cambridge, Mass., after the New Brick Church building was razed. The bell is on display, ringing only on Good Friday and at midnight on Christmas Eve.
His biggest and most famous bell is still rung at services in King’s Chapel, where it is said to have a ‘unique and charming sequence of harmonic effects.’
The First Unitarian Church of Providence boasts that it has the largest bell cast at the Revere foundry in Canton.
The citizens of Bath, Maine, pay a special tribute to their Revere bell every year. It was purchased in 1803 for the new meetinghouse. Forty-seven people made pledges of $491 to buy the bell, in amounts ranging from $2 to $50. Now, at New Year’s Eve at noon they surround City Hall to ring the bell and sing Auld Lang Syne. They could sing ‘Happy Birthday’; Revere was born on Jan. 1, 1735 (New Style).
Woodstock, Vt. has five Revere bells. In 1818 three men traveled from Woodstock to Boston and bought a Revere bell for the First Congregational Church. It cost $319.95, at 45¢ a pound. It cracked in 1974, and is now displayed at the church. Still ringing in Woodstock are Revere bells from the Masonic Temple, Saint James Episcopal Church and the North Universalist Chapel. The fifth is displayed on the putting green in front of the Woodstock Inn.
In 2012, a Paul Revere bell was restored and hung in the Old South Meeting House. It had come from the First Baptist Church of Westboro, Mass., which had closed. Two thousand people watched as a crane lifted the bell into the tower. Now the bell sounds the time for the Downtown Crossing neighborhood. Boston Mayor Tom Menino called it ‘extraordinary.’