While performing restoration work at the John Marshall House in Richmond, Preservation Virginia staff made a recent discovery. House bell systems were used through the federal period to call for domestic enslaved individuals through a series of bells, wires, brass rockers and fabric pull cords. House bell parts and pieces were usually English imports and installation of the system was a specialized trade done by “house bell hangers”. Bell systems in the south often terminated outside, near areas associated with the enslaved – work yards, kitchens, quarters etc.
During repairs to the rear porch of the Marshall House, the Restoration Team confirmed the presence of a house bell system that was previously documented during restoration on the John Marshall House in the 1970s. (1) An entry hole for the wire system was located on the brickwork as well as the remains of a wrought-iron strap, likely the remains of a bell or rocker mount. By inserting a wire into the entry hole, it was confirmed that the bell system originally entered the building and ran behind the crown molding of the northwest wall of the stair hall (running towards the large dining room). This tells us that the bell system was likely installed during construction of the house, and that sections of the system may still be in-situ behind the moldings. It remains undetermined which room(s) has pull cords but is certain that a bell was mounted on the exterior of the Marshall house in close proximity to the work yard. Interpretively, the presence of a house bell can be understood as:
1. A means of widening the gap between societal classes as well as the physical gap between white and black spaces.
2. Increased desire for social refinement – specifically the ability to summon enslaved individuals silently.
3. Increased desire among the wealthy elite for privacy from the individuals they enslaved.
(1) J. Everett Fauber, “Supplementary Report No. 2 John Marshall House Richmond, Virginia,” unpublished report for The John Marshall House Committee of The Association For the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities”, August 1971
Example of a 1780s bell: https://encyclopediavirginia.org/w-976-08-20110519-pub-tif/. For more information on house bell systems check out: https://www.poplarforest.org/servant-bells-at-poplar-forest/ or https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2660&context=all_theses.