Doorbells I have known and loved

As the silly season is now officially under way, I thought I’d post on a serious subject: doorbells.

Doorbell brick wall

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Their significance is often underestimated.  Doorbells announce the very tenor of a house, its owner literally summoned by bells.

And they come – or came – with wonderfully evocative names: the Mell-O-Chime Aristocrat, the Rittenhouse Twintone and my favourite, the very 1950s’ Nutone Skyline.  I wish we’d had one of those.

As a child, the doorbell to our open-plan 1962 house had a clarion clear, well rounded dual tone ring, cheerful, honest yet friendly.  Neighbourly.

The design was pure 60s, though perhaps paid homage to the distant 1920s – a raised, elliptical, silver metallic surround with a satisfyingly firm black button at the centre.  It required a decisive push to get it to sound, as firm as a finger in a Pillsbury doughman.

Ding dong merrily… 

Doorbells blue and red

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Between the ages of eight and eleven, I collected old newspapers and egg boxes each week from neighbours to take to cubs.  Through this, I became quite atuned to the varieties of doorbells along our street and susceptible to their apparent hidden significance.

A single shrill, high pitched, urgent drrrrring!!  – usually indicated a nervous disposition.

I tended to think of bells which sounded somewhere deep within a house as indicating a complex, multi-layered personality.  Usually it just showed that the husband was ‘something big in the city’.

Most mysterious and unnerving of all were the ones which never made a sound yet called forth a figure standing in a doorway within a mere couple of seconds.

The most unmusical doorbell, and old Bakelite model, belonged to my piano teacher, its push button pressed by me dutifully each Tuesday at 4.20 for five years and each Wednesday at 6.40 for a further seven, during which time it became progressively hoarser and more thoracic until reduced to little more than a death throe rattle.

… on high

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Extraordinary though it may seem now, like many children, I once stood on the steps of 10 Downing Street, posing for a photo.  At the age of five, I couldn’t reach the big brass knocker and of course wouldn’t have been allowed to ring the bell.

This was in 1969, at the start of the IRA bombings which later put paid to such frivolities.  After that, gradually, security tightened.   I still have the photo somewhere.

Tender buttons

Doorbell reactor shutdown

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Everything powerful, authoritative, futuristic and glamorous seemed to come about by pressing a button – launching a Thunderbird, firing an interceptor missile or even ending the world.

Apart from being allowed to press the coloured buttons in department store lifts (“no not the red one!”) pressing a doorbell was perhaps the nearest a child of the early 70s could get to the push button excitement of sci-fi heros like Doctor Who, Ed Straker or Scott from Thunderbirds.

Until, that is, I got a longed for Boots cassette recorder for my tenth birthday with its row of large, teeth-like, clunking, snapback rectangular buttons – all white but a ‘red’ one ominously marked REC for ‘Record.’  But that’s another story.

Open House

The theme to Pete Murray’s Open House on Radio 2 remains surely the only piece of music with a riff built around a doorbell, well, a pair of tubular bells to be precise.  (The Avon theme surely doesn’t count).  And what’s more it even sounded a little like our doorbell.

It’s impossible to feel depressed when you listen to this cheerful piece by Brian Fahey which dates from 1969 but happily lasted well into the 80s.  Listen

“Avon calling!”


Nothing popularised the signature door bell sound – the ‘ding dong’, you understand, as against the ‘bing bong’ of the airport tannoy – quite like the Avon doorbell, used in Avon’s television adverts since the 1950s and according to some sources until only 1967 though I recall it well into the 70s, almost as a kind of leitmotif of that decade – unless that was some kind of lingering folk memory mysteriously passed down from mother to child.
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Ringing in the changes: Avon adverts  1950s  1962, 1966, 1969  mid 70s

Doorbell hell

Like music, the doorbell went all horrible in the 80s.  Along with Austrian blinds and faux marble kitchen tops arrived the heritage doorbell.  Not only was it a shadow of its former self as an objet d’art,  resembling a kind of hearing aid (actually rather apt, come to think of it) but the thing played melodies such as Greensleeves, rendered at top speed on a uniquely penetrating, uniquely irritating monophonic kind of synthesiser.  Had such a device been available in the early sixteenth century, would Henry VIII have had it installed at Hampton Court Palace?  I think not.

Doorbell modern Today’s portable, waterproof, wireless, digital models come with a myriad merry melodies and look like some kind of esoteric medical implant, an Oral B extension, or simply a piece of anonymous stick-on plastic.  Doorbells are with us everywhere.  We even carry them around with us as mobile phone ringtones, the brief musical signature heralding a virtual visitor to our world. Photo Credit: SadoTech via Compfight cc

There are some rather lovely vintage doorbells on ebay, mainly Art Deco or Art Deco reproduction though only one 60s/70s model, the endearingly named Gong – with ten people watching – though sadly it comes with only the bell not the push button.

Visit the fascinating  Doorbell Museum for doorbells and door chimes through the years.