10 Resonant Facts About the Liberty Bell

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iStock

It's impossible to talk about American icons without mentioning the Liberty Bell. The one-ton artifact has been present for some of the most important events in United States history, and it's served as a symbol of hope through the nation's darkest times. Here are a few facts worth knowing about the most famous bell in the country.

1. IT CRACKED ALMOST IMMEDIATELY.

The first crack that silenced the Liberty Bell has been largely forgotten. In 1751, Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly Isaac Norris commissioned a bell for the tower of the Pennsylvania State House (a.k.a. Independence Hall). But that first version wasn’t around for long: It cracked on the very first test ring. The bell was melted down, recast, and installed as the State House bell that structured the daily schedules of Benjamin Franklin and other important political figures.

2. IT RANG TO MARK THE STAMP ACT’S REPEAL ...

The State House bell typically signaled the start of Pennsylvania Assembly meetings or the reading of the news, but it also marked significant events. In 1756, it rang out in protest of the British Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act, and in 1766 it recognized the tax’s repeal.

3. ... BUT IT PROBABLY DIDN’T RING ON INDEPENDENCE DAY.

According to legend, a boy visited an old man in the State House bell tower on July 4, 1776 with an important message: The Declaration of Independence had just been signed. The story goes that the elderly tower keeper rang the bell that day to signal the news, but this likely never happened. The signing of the Declaration wasn’t publicly celebrated until July 8. So where did the story of the messenger boy and the old bell ringer come from? The mid-19th century writer George Lippard invented the tale for a children’s book called Legends of the American Revolution.

4. IT HAS A BIBLICAL INSCRIPTION.

The inscription wrapped around the top of the bell reads: “Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof.” The quote is from Leviticus 25:10 in the Bible, and it’s part of instructions to the Israelites to return property and free slaves every 50 years.

5. IT BECAME AN ABOLITIONIST SYMBOL.

As the anti-slavery movement gained steam in the 19th century, these words developed a deeper meaning. Abolitionists saw the cause they were fighting for reflected in the inscription. The bell became a symbol of freedom for all people, and in 1835 the publication The Anti-Slavery Record referred to it as the Liberty Bell in print for the first time.

6. THE CRACK WAS WIDENED ON PURPOSE.

The Liberty Bell’s crack makes it instantly recognizable, but if it had been left alone it wouldn’t look nearly as dramatic. After ringing for decades, a thin crack formed in the bell in the 1840s. Metalworkers “repaired” the fissure in 1846 by widening it and inserting bolts at both ends. This way, the split metal wouldn’t bang together when rung, which would hopefully prevent the crack from growing.

7. THERE’S A SECOND, WORSE CRACK THAT’S BARELY VISIBLE.

The repair job didn’t end up doing the bell much good. When the bell was rung on George Washington’s birthday in 1846, a second crack formed across the crown, extending from the abbreviation for “Philadelphia” up to the word “Liberty.” It’s just a hairline fracture, barely visible next to the widened crack, but it forced the bell into retirement.

8. IT TOURED THE COUNTRY.

The new crack meant the Liberty Bell was unable to serve its original purpose, but it was still put to good use. The bell traveled to expositions and fairs across the country from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, making stops in small towns and major cities. Some of the more influential figures to catch it on tour included Thomas Edison and former confederate president Jefferson Davis. During its famous 10,000-mile trip from Philadelphia to San Francisco, it’s estimated that one-quarter of the country’s 1915 population caught a glimpse of the bell.

9. IT’S STILL TAPPED OCCASIONALLY.

The Liberty Bell hasn’t been rung since it formed its fateful crack in 1846, but it has been lightly tapped many times since then. During World War II, it was tapped to mark D-Day, V-E Day, and V-J Day. Today it’s an annual tradition for a group of young descendants of the signers of the Declaration of Independence to tap the bell 13 times on July 4.

10. YOU CAN HEAR WHAT IT PROBABLY SOUNDED LIKE.

Even though no one alive today has heard the Liberty Bell ring, we still have a good idea of what it sounded like. In 1999, graduate students at Pennsylvania State University recreated the bell as a computer model. With this digital replica they were able to calculate the specific vibrations the bell would have made when struck. They even made this data into a playable audio clip: You can listen to the results here.

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From Campaign Slogans to Social Movements, New Book Explores the Role Buttons Have Played Throughout History

Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon
Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

From their early days on the campaign trail during the 1896 presidential race to their current role as a way of showing support for social causes like the LGBTQIA+ pride movement, pinback buttons have remained one of the most popular ways for people to express their values and beliefs for well over a century. And now, button experts Christen Carter, founder of Chicago’s Busy Beaver Button Company and the Button Museum, and Ted Hake, owner of Hake’s Auctions, have put their extensive knowledge of the subject into the new book Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons ($25), a cultural journey showcasing 1500 of the most important and unique pinbacks throughout American history.

“Buttons seem like really a niche thing, but they really are very general,” Carter tells Mental Floss. “They cover so much history, and the history goes deep and wide.”

For the book, Hake and Carter—who both began collecting buttons during their respective childhoods—cover how buttons have been used to communicate messages during their 125-year history, from pinbacks featuring landmark political slogans and anti-war sentiments to others that simply proclaim a person's love of Dallas.

“[Buttons] are little windows on the world, and you can pick an avenue and head down to your heart's content,” Hake tells Mental Floss.

Some of the 20th century's most important moments had a button to go along with them.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

One of Hake's favorite buttons in the book doesn't feature a political or social statement—it's just a picture of a buffalo with the words “Eat Me at Bremen, Kans. June 9, 1935” emblazoned across it. But it wasn't just the design that really caught his attention; it was also its backstory.

The button's origins lie within the town of Bremen, Kansas, which, in June 1935, was celebrating both its 50th anniversary and the dedication of a marker for the defunct Oregon Trail, according to Kansas Historical Quarterly. Two weeks before the celebration, 500 townspeople gathered in Bremen to watch a buffalo get slaughtered, which was then shipped to the neighboring town’s ice house for preservation. When the big day finally arrived, the buffalo was shipped back to become the centerpiece of a community-wide feast. The button was made to spread the word for the unique event.

“Here he is on this button, inviting the good folks of Bremen to enjoy him,” Hake says. “So it is a little bit surreal, to tell you the truth.” During his research, Hake recovered this niche historical event that could’ve otherwise been easily lost to history. “At the end of the day, they capped it off with supper, a band concert, and they gave away a baby buffalo calf,” he says.

Buttons have been used to express both support and opposition to the United States's involvement in wars. Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

While pinback button technology has not changed drastically in the past 125 years, Hake and Carter still consider their golden era to be from 1896 to 1921. “The colors are just unusual and beautiful,” Carter says. “They were able to get fine details that, [even] with digital printing, we can’t do.” Carter also enjoys how buttons were used as a communication device during the punk movement, saying, “They're important identifiers to a counter-culture movement, and they were not afraid to piss people off.”

Though the book covers buttons featuring celebrities, bands, and brands, many of the most popular ones come from the political arena and sports. Hake’s Auction just set the record for the most expensive pinback sold on September 23, 2020, with a 1916 Boston Red Sox World Series button that went for $62,980. “What makes it great is that every team member is on the button and up at 11 o’clock is one Babe Ruth. He was in his second year and was a pitcher back in those days,” Hake explains.

Even though there are buttons like the Babe Ruth ones that sell for thousands of dollars, it's still an accessible hobby for everyone. “You can start your button collection with just $10 and already have a good start. It is a good thing to collect if you don’t have much money or much space,” Carter explains.

The power of the political button eventually became fertile ground for satire in the '70s.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

Looking forward to the next 125 years, Carter hopes that buttons can become more eco-friendly by eliminating steel use and replacing it with recycled materials. “They haven’t changed that much in the last 125 years. They are pretty timeless in that way, and they are inexpensive, so whatever keeps them as inexpensive as possible as resources change in the next 100 years, they will probably change."

You can order Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons on Amazon or on the Princeton Architectural Press website.

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