Have you ever been called to dinner by the sound of an old fashioned dinner bell? I have. During my youth this was my daily pleasure. And, although removed from that glorious experience by an ever-increasing gap of time and space, I can still hear the merry tones of that old bell.
In that day no farm house was complete without its dinner bell. Some of these were simple, unimposing affairs mounted on a pole in the back yard. Many of them rested astride the ridge of the “summer house”.
Ours was suspended in a small, neat cupola on the top of the main house where it commanded an over-all position where it could be heard from every corner of the farm. Its rope came down through the attic, an upstairs bedroom, and hung in a loop in the corner of the living room where it was an important part of the room fixtures and where it was easily accessible.
Originally the dinner bell was an indispensable part of every farm’s equipment. In the early days there were no cheap, machine-made watches, no trains or trolleys passed through the countryside on regular schedules, no whistles in nearby towns shrieked the time of day.
Nothing but the sun overhead and the degree of vacuity of his stomach gave the laborer in the field any clue as to the time of the day or any authentic and valid right to stop his work and prepare for dinner and the much needed noon interlude from toil.
However, long after these more modern time pieces kept the farmer informed of the hour of the day, the dinner bells continued to send out their melodious rhymes. They became an institution, an integral and irreplaceable part of the customs and folklore of the community.
By means of the dinner bell every housewife could daily announce her vocation and advertise her merchandise. Cooking in a Pennsylvania “Dutch” home was no trifling undertaking. Every meal, in order to pass the test imposed by the customs of generations, was supposed to contain its seven “sweets” and seven “sours”. There had to be an abundance of everything carefully placed in dual dishes one set at each end of the table so no member of the household was delayed by such aggravating impediments as passing dishes.
After laboring for hours in those old-fashioned kitchens, most generally large and inconvenient and in summer always hot, little could you blame the cook for getting some respite by so appropriate a means of publicly revealing that completion of her laborious project. The ringing of the dinner bell was indeed a great announcement.
(To Be Continued)
By George M. Ludwig, Tiffin, Iowa, formerly of Reamstown, PA.
To A Bell 5/23/1945
This motive behind the ringing of the dinner bell naturally was never discussed, and had it ever been mentioned it would have been emphatically denied by the modest “frau” of the house. The direct motive was otherwise. It was synonymous with the grunt of the sow, the cluck of the hen, the moo of the cow, and the neigh of the mare. It represented the clarion call of the mistress of the house to her master and her large flock of future hopefuls to come to her royal feast.
Incidentally it also supplied a welcoming appeal to any casual wayfarer to participate in this heavenly manna spread out in so humble a setting. This invitation was never denied whether its recipient was tramp or President so long as the guest was willing to assume the rank and social position of the humble host.
This ringing of the dinner bell developed into any institution representing social solidarity and community harmony. Housewives, thereby, would participate in a friendly neighborly contest. Not who would have her washing on the line first on a Monday morning but who would have dinner ready first, was here the question. This contest had far more possibilities. Farming in that section naturally was intensive and farm houses were not far apart, but in spite of this the average farm wife could see only a few neighboring yards.
The ringing of the dinner bell was different. On a quiet, still day as many as a dozen could be heard from the same location. This widened the number of contestants, neighborhoods could become larger and best of all, the tournament could become a daily affair.
Today some housewives find their function as keeper of the hearth rather tedious. Consequently they seek more glamorous activities. Sometimes they neglect maintaining the affection of their husbands. They either misunderstand or disregard the seriousness of the tone of their stomachs. The civil courts often dispose of this problem. Perhaps some judges and statesman could become famous by perfecting the necessary legislation to reinstate the old dinner bell and perhaps make its use mandatory. Imagine the humiliation of a housewife returning late from some gallivanting trip and being compelled to ring publicly a loud dinner bell calling her family to dinner at 2 or 3 o’clock.
There naturally are drawbacks to this proposal. Well do I remember a neighboring mistress who upon the hearing of the first dinner bell would hurry to her own and ring it long and loud irrespective of the stage of preparedness of her own meal. Fortunately we were not deceived by this bit of sabotage of a sacred custom. Her men in the fields would always make several extra rounds after hearing their bell. It would probably be necessary thoguh, to have available quite a group of G-men if this custom again inaugurated and the rules of the tournament were not to be violated.
Seriously again! However much the ringing of the dinner bell meant to the housewife herself, and whatever glory was therein contained — this all was nothing in comparison to the deep and ineffaceable impression made on the typical farm boy by the daily ringing of the dinner bell. Of all the memories that crowd my mind as I become reminiscent, none stand out as prominently as the sound of that old bell.
To A Bell
An old custom among among my people was to have dinner at 11 supper at 4, and lunch just before retiring. This schedule divided the day into three shifts instead of the customary two. In spite, however of this early hour for dinner, the much enjoyed afternoon supper, and the common bedtime lunch, a hardworking lad going through the toil of those hot days became extremely hungry. Farm labor then was far more strenuous. There was corn and tobacco to be hoed, the manure was hauled and spread by hand, hay was pitched on the wagon and unloaded without a hay fork.
There were other chores, not always so strenuous but even more tiring. The cows had to be watched along the road side. The tobacco worms needed hunting, the large family garden needed weeding and the yard mowing, and the sourdock and burdock had to be cut around the fence corners. Such chores all added to the whetting of the appetite. No wonder the ringing of the dinner bell was the real “balm of Gilead.”
Memories of those days again crowd my mind. For hours and hours we would struggle through the heat of the day in one seemingly endless progression. No wonder we would keep our ears tuned to the sound of that bell. No wonder in the closing minutes of such periods of toil, we would constantly turn towards the old homestead to catch the first strains of that most melodious, most harmonious…….. (the rest of the article is missing from the scrapbook)