“Tapping” the Liberty Bell for our Nation’s Birthday

Mayor Harry Mackey poses with the Liberty Bell, February 22, 1931

It takes time to prepare and transfer over eleven million feet of film; in fact, we’re still at it.  But discovery is one of the great joys of working with the Fox Movietone News Collection.  This week’s featured video is one of those pleasant surprises and it is now screened to the public for the first time since 1931.

Fox Movietone News Story 9-161: The Liberty Bell Rings Again documents a celebratory ‘ringing’ of the Liberty Bell to mark the 199th birthday of George Washington.  It was the first grand event of a bicentennial celebration that would reach its crescendo a year later. The Fox Movietone News film clearly shows an NBC microphone beneath the bell.  The New York Times radio schedule for February 22nd confirms that  NBC’s WJZ broadcast the event in its 2:30 to 3:00 pm time slot.

For this event, Mayor Harry Mackey of Philadelphia says a few words and “taps” the bell thirteen times in honor of the original thirteen colonies, whose names are read in the order in which the colonies ratified the Constitution.  The idea for the event originated with the George Washington Bicentennial Commission.  According to correspondence  held by the Library and Archives of Independence Historical Park, Congressman Sol Bloom (NY), wrote on behalf of the commission to Mayor Mackey.  This letter initiated an internal discussion between the mayor’s office and Charles W. Needle, Chief,  Bureau of City Property and H. T. Carpenter, Superintendent of Independence Hall.  Chief Needle and Superintendent Hall both expressed concerned about the physical health of the Liberty Bell and sought the advice of specialists at the Franklin Institute (a note of thanks to the park librarian, Christian Higgins, for providing access to this correspondence).  Mayor Mackey and Congressman Bloom prevailed–apparently politicians like to pose for cameras and speak to radio audiences…

While radio audiences across the country had the chance to hear the liberty bell, not all Movietone audiences did.  In an unusual (though not unprecedented move) the Liberty Bell story was not released to audiences in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

This wasn’t the first time the bell cleared its throat for mass media audiences.  In the mid 1920s the Liberty Bell was struck to ring in the New Year for radio audiences.  And one month before this this event the Mayor of Philadelphia posed for Fox Movietone News cameras and tapped the bell to celebrate Benjamin Franklin’s 200th birthday.  While this film still exists, the mayor spoke so long that the camera ran out of film before he tapped the bell!

The Liberty Bell cracked in 1846 when rung to commemorate Washington’s birthday–the crack ruined the bell’s harmonics but elevated its symbolic status because it was then put on display.  From 1885 through 1915 the bell traveled extensively and in the process became a truly enduring symbol of American freedom and liberty.  An exact replica of the Liberty Bell was cast in France on the 60th anniversary of D-Day.  We can reach back in time for an echo of the Liberty Bell’s tone by listening to that of its replica, http://www.ushistory.org/libertybell/more/normandybell.htm

About gregw

Greg Wilsbacher curates the Newsfilm Collections at MIRC. These include: The Fox Movietone News Collection, local television News collections (WIS, WBTW, WLTX), the Harry and William Birch Collection and the Marvin Lipman Collection.
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