Keeping one of Philadelphia’s most prized possessions looking sharp is no laughing matter.
“The Liberty Bell, next to the Statue of Liberty — those are the two icons that everybody looks at as being ‘America,’” said Bob Giannini, 70, of Northeast Philly, museum curator at Independence National Park.
This spring and summer hordes of tourists will descend on Old City and Independence National Park. Many of them will come to visit the prized Bell of Philadelphia, which is seen as one of the foremost international symbols of liberty and freedom.
Giannini’s duties include maintaining the famed Bell, which attracts six to 16,000 visitors from around the world each day.
“It has this great passage from Leviticus on it, that says ‘Proclaim liberty throughout the world.’ So people from all over the world gravitate to it,” Giannini said.
Dating back to the 1750s and cast by local founders John Pass and John Stow, the Bell is believed to have rung at the reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776. In the 1830s, it was dubbed “the Liberty Bell” by Abolitionists.
But the exact maintenance of the Bell is a mystery to most people. Who exactly washes the darn thing?
As it turns out, since the 80s the Liberty Bell has been encased in a protective wax coating that blocks all floating particles in the atmosphere. That’s because around that time, the roughly two-century-old Bell was beginning to deteriorate.
“Oh golly, back about 1982, there was a crystalline formation inside the Bell,” Giannini recalled.
The “white, powdery” crystalline formation was identified as a type of ammonia (copper ammonium sulfate hydrate compound), which was able to grow as the Bell was heating up to 114 degrees Fahrenheit under direct winter sunlight (as the sun is closest to the northern hemisphere during winter).
By 1984, technicians had analyzed everything near the Bell, from horse manure to floor cleaners to find the origin of the ammonia, and determined it was likely coming from plant fertilizer used in Independence Park. Use of the fertilizer was discontinued.
Once the problem was identified, conservators washed the formation off in 1984 with de-ionized water and ethanol. Then they covered the Bell with coats of arauba wax and microcrystalline wax to protect it from the atmosphere.
But Giannini still inspects the Bell monthly to ensure no such deterioration is occurring.
The Bell’s story isn’t over yet. Artist Jeff Koons is working on a series of replicas of the Bell. It also continues to attract visitors — including protesters. The Bell saw a civil rights sit-in in 1963, Cheri Honkala’s protest camp for the homeless in 1995, and still attracts pro-marijuana activists and demonstrations by Ukrainians.
“I think that they use it as a symbol for what it is. Liberty and freedom, that’s all a part of what goes on at your protests,” Giannini said. “Although it has been silenced since 1846, it still just screams freedom and liberty.”
Future generations will see the Bell as well, Giannini said.
“Even thought it’s had some problems in the past, it’s not something that we should be super concerned about,” he said. “It’s held up really well, all considered.”
Even more info about the Bell
The yoke is made of the same original wood, believed to date back to the 1780s.
The bell is 2,080 pounds, 3 feet tall, and made up of 70% copper, 25% tin, 2% lead, 1% tin, .25% arsenic, .2% silver, with trace amounts of gold, magnesium, nickel and antimony
A small dent remains where Nebraska wanderer Mitchell Guilliatt smacked the Bell several times while shouting “Free the spirit inside the bell with God!” in 2001 before staff tackled him. He served two years in federal prison.
The Bell is famously featured on the Post Office’s first standard “Forever Stamp,” which Giannini helped develop.
Visually impaired people are allowed to touch the Bell (wearing gloves).
1752 — The Liberty Bell was ordered to replace William Penn’s city bell. The first one came from England and cracked quickly, but Pass & Stow’s replacement still hangs in Independence Park today.
1776 — Some historians doubt that the Bell tolled the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4 — but it did toll the first public reading of the Declaration on July 8.
1777 — The Bell was brought to Allentown and hid from the British under church floorboards.
1835 — First instance of the name “The Liberty Bell” being used in an abolitionist publication.
1846 — The Bell cracks while tolling the anniversary of George Washington’s birthday, rendering it silent.
1976 — The Bell moved from Independence Hall to a Pavilion on Independence Park after the bicentennial.
2003 — The Bell moved to its current home, the Liberty Bell Center.