Before the rollicking promenade of floats and the bursting of fireworks across Edgartown Harbor, Vineyard Haven will be ringing in the Fourth in a gentler fashion.
At 2 p.m. tomorrow, folks up and down Main Street will ring hand bells, cowbells, tea bells, sleigh bells or whatever bell is handy to celebrate Independence Day. The gesture represents an attempt to resurrect a tradition begun in accordance with the U.S. Senate Concurrent Resolution 25 passed by Congress in June 1963.
The resolution begins as follows: “Whereas the tolling of the Liberty Bell of Independence Hall, Philadelphia at 2 o’clock in the afternoon of the fourth day of July, 1776, proclaimed the signing of the Declaration of Independence; and whereas the adoption of this historic document marked the birth of our country as a free and independent nation,” Congress therefore proclaimed that at 2 p.m. (EDT) the anniversary be observed throughout the country with the ringing of bells, and that civic and government leaders encourage public participation within their communities.
Jane Chandler, owner of the Beach House in Vineyard Haven and lover of bells, is among those spearheading the local movement. She learned about the resolution while reading a reprint of Eric Sloane’s, A Celebration of Bells, written in 1966. In the book, Mr. Sloane explores the history of bells in America, identifying uses ranging from the warning of Indian attacks to the scaring of unwanted farm critters.
“By the early 1700s, the bell had become the national instrument for calling people together,” writes Mr. Sloane, whether that was gathering young children for school, assembling the congregation for church or spreading the news of town.
With the coming of the Chinese firework trade in the 1800s, the gentle jingle of a bell on the Fourth was overpowered by the boisterous burst of fireworks, he writes.
“Fireworks have ruled the ‘Glorious Fourth’ for over a century,” he writes. “After Civil War days the country was accustomed to the noise of cannonfire and bombs, and the sound of bells on the Fourth of July became an almost completely forgotten custom.”
He touches on the Congressional resolution, hoping for the tradition to be brought to life again.
“America’s birthday (Independence Day) should be more special and significant than most people regard it. Ringing a bell on July Fourth may seem pretty childish, but it is a beginning.”
Last year, on behalf of the Tisbury Business Association, store owners rang their bells at 2 p.m. to try to revive the ritual that once could be heard in the town’s very streets.
“People heard the ringing and didn’t know what it was about, which goes to show that the ringing of the bells and the proclamation is really a lost tradition,” Ms. Chandler said.
An article from the Gazette in 1880 describes the bells in full swing.
“In Vineyard Haven, the village bells were well exercised by the boys in ringing a paean to the ever-welcome “Fourth” with its stores of crackers, spinning wheels, torpedoes, etc.”
And across the bridge in Oak Bluffs, the bells, too, sang their song.
“The larger portion of cottage citizens were exceedingly alarmed at the ringing of bells Monday morning, and could only be persuaded that it was the custom among the sons of the United States to indulge in just such alarming noises once a year in honor of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.”
Ms. Chandler believes that celebrating the Fourth with the same instruments of freedom that were first used by the country’s forefathers and earliest citizens brings a special meaning to the holiday. She and other members of the association hope that the tradition can be Island-wide and invite all to participate in the ringing, whether they have a bell or not.
“It doesn’t cost any money to do it, people can grab anything and ring it,” Ms. Chandler said. “If they are on the beach having a picnic, they can shake their car keys. If they are on a boat on the harbor, they can signal their hornIt’s a wonderful way to remember our freedom, even if it is a little old-fashioned. I think it’s the very thing we need to hang on to.”
The resolution does not specifically state for how long the bells are to be tolled; some accounts proclaim for four minutes, and others ask for 13 bell rings, each toll symbolizing one of the original 13 colonies.