Vintage long chime doorbells — “enchanting” reproductions from ElectraChime doorbells

And, we get a brief history about “the Golden Age of Doorbells”

mid-century-doorbellIts always fun to find someone who is truly excited about what they create — like Robert Dobrin, founder and Chief Ding Dong Officer of ElectraChime.com. Robert has a passion for old school, tubular chime doorbells — and hand crafts every single set of doorbells he sells. Robert became enamored with the musical quality of doorbells at an early age while out trick-or-treating at a grand old house in his neighborhood. The sound of the doorbells at that old house was just as good as the Halloween candy, he says.

vintage-style-doorbellWe asked Robert to tell us about his passion for chime doorbells and the company he built around them.

When did you start ElectraChime?

I made my first long chime doorbell in 2004. I could not find one in stores. And the one I bought on ebay was in terrible condition—folks just don’t part with installed long chime doorbells that work. I started ElectraChime that same year.
mid-century-doorbellsAbove: ElectraChime Ribbon Long Chime Doorbell with two brass bells in doorbell niche.


Click the video “go” and hear the doorbell sound!

Halloween trick or treating to doorbell business

There is a grand house on the street where I grew up. My brother and I rang their doorbell once a year—on Halloween. All the other houses in the neighborhood had doorbells that sounded ordinary. This doorbell was enchanting. When the kindly couple opened the door, I marveled at the still resonating, beautiful, long bells. That doorbell was a treat for the eyes and ears. Every bit as good as the candy! I always wanted a long chime doorbell.

While remodeling my own home I looked in every home center for a long chime door bell. There were none to be found.  All I found were cheap doorbells absolutely lacking in appearance and sound. Even worse, most new door chimes were electronic chimes that beeped and chirped. Long Chime doorbells were simply not available. And vintage long chime doorbells were surprisingly scarce, and even if you do find one, the bells are usually cracked and the mechanisms no longer functional. So, I set out to craft my own.

After long hours hunched over a workbench, a new chime was born. After seeing mine, an acquaintance with an empty chime niche crying out for a new doorbell asked for one. I built another and ElectraChime was born.

Inspiration from the “Golden Age” of doorbells

vintage-style-chime-doorbellAbove: ElectraChime long bell door chimes are suitable for a variety of decors.

The 1930s, 40s and 50s, were a  “golden age” of long chime doorbells. Some of the finest Industrial Designers of the 20th Century, including Norman Bel Geddes and Russel Wright, lent their considerable talents to doorbell manufacturers. Builders often installed shallow niches in finer homes to showcase a long bell door chime. Sadly, a combination of price pressure and electronics decimated the long chime doorbell market. Today, many doorbell niches sit empty or have a tired doorbell. This leaves renovators scrambling to find a suitable doorbell.

ElectraChimes fill this market void while taking design queues from the “golden era” of door chimes. There’s an ElectraChime for every decor.

The Coronet chime features traditional crown molding and suits Colonial, Victorian and Traditional homes. Empire was inspired by the marquetry and curves of a 1930s console radio. The Comet has the minimalist optimism of the 1950s and features an atomic-faced clock. The Metro and Ribbon door chimes suit a variety of styles. Chimes with brass tubes have a more traditional look, while nickel plated-brass bells complement bright metal hardware and stainless steel appliances.

There are no rules so I always advise people to choose the chime they like best.

Some of my most rewarding experiences come from building a custom doorbell out of trim or floorboards salvaged from a renovation project. And when a client builds a new niche especially for an ElectraChime, I smile from ear-to-ear.

Do you make ElectraChimes yourself?

building-doorbellAbove: Here, ElectraChime Metro doorbell covers get their first coat of varnish.

Yes, I handcraft every ElectraChime doorbell myself in California.

building-ElectraChime-doorbells

Robert Dobrin, ElectraChime’s Chief Ding Dong Officer at work.

For the tubular bells, I use a brass alloy selected for its acoustic quality.  Each set of bells is individually tuned then I radially polish the bells to a satin finish. Many of today’s renovators opt for nickel hardware and stainless steel appliances, so I just introduced satin polished nickel-plated bells. Brass bells are more traditional while nickel-plated bells provide a retro-modern look.

For the cases that protects the mechanism and wiring, I use hardwoods sourced from sustainable forests. Walnut and Cherry are particular favorites.

The low voltage electrical mechanisms that strike the bells are hand assembled with high quality hardware. They feature a micro-adjustment to insure that each bell is struck perfectly for a long resonance.

How’s business?

Selling long chime doorbells is a niche business—sorry, the pun is unavoidable. I find there’s an ever increasing awareness of, and a longing for, the elegance of the past. Many customers relate fond memories of a door chime they remember from their youth. Renovators usually look for a doorbell towards the end of a project at about the same time they are installing, or reinstall, house hardware. I’m only too happy to oblige them with an ElectraChime.

I tell people that making doorbells is so much fun it doesn’t even feel like working. And it keeps me busy. You can find ElectraChimes installed in all 50 U.S. States and on every continent. There are ElectraChimes in capital cities and remote farm houses. I wish I could visit them all!

What is the difference between two- and three-tube doorbells? What about the finish on the bells?

midcentury-chime-doorbell

retro-chime-doorbells

ElectraChimes fit in niches or on flat walls.

All ElectraChime doorbells ring “ding-dong” for the front door and “ding” for the rear door. The center bell is decorative and has no effect on the sound. Both Brass and Nickel-plated brass tubular bells ring the same rich notes with a lasting resonance

The center bell in ElectraChime doorbells is entirely decorative. All ElectraChime doorbells ring “ding-dong” for the front door and “ding” for an optional third bell. When a caller presses the doorbell button, a striker hits the shorter tube to produce the “ding” and when the button is released, the striker recoils to hit the longer tube for the “dong”.

Nickel and brass bells both ring the same, crisp, traditional notes with rich tones and a long sustain. ElectraChime brass bells are polished to a satin finish that provides an elegant luster. Brass bells are clear coated to prevent tarnish. Nickel-plated brass bells are brass bells plated with a thin coat of nickel to provide a silver color. The plating has no distinquishable affect on the tone.

Even though the mechanics and sounds of two- and three-tube doorbells are identical, the aesthetics are quite different.

A three bell chime presents a fuller look. On doorbells with larger covers, this can provide extra balance. The same cover looks more modern, and perhaps a bit less formal with two tubes. So if you subscribe to a minimalist design philosophy, a two bell doorbell assures the form follows function.

In Feng Shui, even numbers give Yin energy and odd numbers Yang. Thus, a two bell chime has more feminine energy while a three bell chime has more masculine energy. Design principals hold that odd number compositions—and in particular the rule of three—add motion and interest. This can be explained that your eye and brain can’t pair odd numbers of elements.

I’m not certain I’ve provided much clarity to the subject of two or three bells or just muddied the waters a little bit more. And I’ll so my best to resist creating my own doctrine of the “ding and the dong”.  So I will just leave you with this old saying I just made up:

“Your house is your castle, so furnish it as you will.”

Zen and the Art of Ringing Doorbells

There’s an entire feedback loop involved in ringing a doorbell.

You probably may not have thought much about the simple act of ringing a doorbell, however when you break it down into the experience for the caller outside, and the residents inside, the home, there’s quite a bit to it.

When you ring somebody’s doorbell, you are asking to be invited into their home. You want to make a good impression, and so does the host. From the caller’s perspective, you want the doorbell to be heard outside of the house so you are certain the occupants have actually been summoned. Think back on how many times you have rung a doorbell only to knock because you didn’t know whether the doorbell was working?

As the occupant behind the front door, you obviously need to hear the doorbell. But you don’t want the sound to assault your ears. And you want your guests to have a good impression and a pleasant wait.

A long chime doorbell provides the best possible experience for all concerned. The luxurious long notes are loud enough to be heard outside so it makes your house sound welcoming. Inside the house, you and your family are alerted of guests by the harmonious sound of real bells.

And when you greet your guests and they finally see your elegant doorbell, the Zen is complete. A 1930’s marketer of long bell door chimes summed it up with this flowing copy:

“A thrill for the visitor, satisfaction and pride for the owner… rich, melodious tones that vibrate throughout the house. Callers so not soon forget so distinctive a greeting.”

Noise Enemy Number 1

Rittenhouse-Doorbell-ad-vintageNuTone-Doorbell-advertisement-vintageAfter electric lights, doorbells were often the second residential electrical appliance in a home.  Early doorbells were exactly that:  bells that sounded like a fire alarm. Sure, they alerted you that somebody was at the door, but it was like hitting you over the head with a hammer! In the 1930s door chimes arrived that produced their sound by striking one or more tubular bells or metal xylophone-like tone bars.

Door chimes produce the ubiquitous “ding-dong” sound we know today. Thus door chimes were marketed to combat “doorbell nerves” and “Public Noise Enemy #1″.

For more, please see my sister site, the Doorbell Museum.

As someone who had a “buzzer” style doorbell at their last house, I can attest to likening it to getting hit over the head by a hammer. It was a jarring buzz that often times sent my mug of coffee flying, jolted me out of my comfortable spot on the couch or at the very least gave me quite a startle. In my 1962 ranch house, the original doorbell has more of a chimey ding dong to it, which is much more soothing. That said: It sure would be wonderful to have a bell like Robert’s ElectraChimes that let me know if my visitor was at the front or back door. For now, I’ll have to resort to following the dog, who always seems to have a sixth sense letting him know which door is hiding our guest.

Mega thanks to Robert for sharing his extensive knowledge about doorbells, sharing his story and sharing this source for musical sounding, made in America, beautifully hand crafted vintage style chime doorbells.

Pam wants to add, she also is really pleased to now have a better understanding of why three’s work the way they do in design — our brain can’t organize those odd-numbered whatevers into pairs. Brilliant!

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Comments

  1. Roundhouse Sarah says

    Yes! My childhood home had its original long chime doorbell and it sounded so lovely, in fact it’s still there chiming on. When I bought my roundhouse I installed a new modern digital doorbell. Within the year it was already not working….

  2. Karen says

    Love, love, love the sound and appearance of long chimes. My Aunt and Uncle had them, in a niche, and they were lovely.

  3. Robin, NV says

    My grandmother’s house was built in 1953. Something went wrong when the doorbell was installed so it always made a “plunk plunk” sound instead of a “ding dong” sound. Grandma despised her doorbell but never got around to replacing it. As a kid, I was told under no circumstances was I ever to ring the doorbell at Grandma’s house. At Halloween, she’d leave the door wide open and try to meet kids at the door before they had a chance to ring it. But someone always did . . .

  4. June Cahill says

    I can’t tell you how much I love this article – I really don’t know why – perhaps it’s about the “Yin/Yang” or maybe “Zen” – somehow, something with “Halloween” always grabs my attention…- When I read about how the older doorbells gave off a horrible ‘buzzing’ sound – I immediately thought of the apt. my daughter lives in in downtown SF – built around 1910 – The sound of her doorbell, to me at least, is like the sound of a dentist drill! I then flashed back to some older homes that just had a bell on the door – you’d turn the ‘spinner’? and ring the bell.

    In our home, I’ve always been especially proud of our doorbell (I know, I know..but if I can’t express my feelings here, where can I???) – I had a contractor who wanted to “throw that old thing out!” But there had been a niche built just for the doorbell! It was like my Herman Miller ‘in the soffit’ clock – I COULDN’T just “throw it out!!!” – It’s a FOUR chime – but, after 10 years, I’ve not been able to get the dings and dongs to work properly :(….sometimes they work, sometimes – not.

    Then you mentioned a different ring for the ‘back door’ – well, we live in a 63 ranch – with a slider back door… – HOWEVER—we have a KITCHEN door at the breezeway. When we first moved here, there was a doorbell at the kitchen breezeway door…the other side of the breezeway was “the maid’s quarters’ (on our original plans) – so ‘back in the day’ – when the maid needed to come in the main home, she’s (he’d) have to ring the doorbell at the kitchen door…and possibly our door chimes would have given a different ring! HOW INTERESTING!

    Oh, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for this very interesting article! Always fascinating – but at times, more pertinent than others, right?:-)

  5. Steve H says

    I have one of those buzzer type doorbells on the second floor (it dates from when the house was divided into apartments). That thing could truly wake up the dead.

  6. SebastianFTL says

    When I red this, a “bell” went off in my head. Norman Bel Geddes, the industrial designer, was the father of Barbara Bel Geddes the actress. Ms. Bel Geddes played Midge in Hitchcock’s ultimate 1950’s film “Vertigo.”

    Just thought you should know…

  7. Jay says

    Wow! This post has stirred memories. Growing up we had a 3 tube chime that hung on a narrow wall in the dining room. I always thought it elegant and unique, none of the neighbors had one – they usually had the typical square plastic box that went ding dong. I thought those long chimes had such a beautiful sound. I was sorry when it broke becuase my father replaced it with the standard plastic box which was purely functional and had no aesthetic quality.
    I never knew until now that the center tube was just for looks.
    I think I will consider moving my doorbell from the kitchen to the other side in the dining room so I can have real chimes.
    Great post!

  8. Paula Webb says

    If you are interested in trying to restore your own doorbell, Eureka Modern (www.eurekamodern.com) has a very detailed tutorial on what might be wrong and how to fix it. It is also really fascinating and has some references to mid century windows that were pretty interesting.

    We have a Rittenhouse door bell (with the back door bell) that goes ding klunk. We have tried everything but so far haven’t been able to fix it. I would really love it if it was louder or if we could move it to the basement hallway so we could hear it when working downstairs, but that is quite a ways down the project list!

  9. Jacki says

    My folks had a long chime doorbell in their 1965 house in Phoenix. It sounded just like the door bell in the Avon commercials back then. Dad always took the brass chimes off on Halloween because we usually had 100+ kids every year and it was pretty annoying. I have a Nutone door bell, but I really miss that long chime sound.

  10. Nina462 says

    I don’t have a long door chime, but I do have the original Ding Dong bell. Perhaps you could get the uploader on this weekend & we can send in pics of all our different door bells. Then he can get some ideas for housing –

    the article was simple fascinating! thanks for sharing.

  11. Neil says

    Before we bought our present 1925 Spanish-style house here in San Francisco, we rented a similar but less beautiful one out nearer the ocean that had a coveted center patio, a gorgeous black and gold-tiled bath and… an incredible original long-chime doorbell, the only one like it I’ve ever seen: It had four long brass chime tubes and all four of them sounded with a sonorous clarion ring. The chime tubes hung from a wooden box that was purely decorative, because the striking mechanism was mounted inside the wall behind the tubes, with the four hammers coming through holes in the plaster to strike the musical notes from behind. And with every push of the doorbell it played all four verses of the classic Big Ben tune! Ding dong ding dong, dong dong ding dong…. Delightful!
    The only regrettable thing about leaving that rented house to come to our own Spanish-tiled home was leaving behind those remarkable chimes.

  12. Anita Johnston says

    My husband and I live in a 1950’s brick ranch Home in MI and we have one of these “long bell” doorbells!!! Our Home has the niche in the hallway for it and everything. It is so cool. It is one of my very favorite retro things from the past (that still carried through until today), in this cute little home of ours. Now…. If only we still had the Original kitchen and bath, laundry chute door with the Spring on it, and the milk chute, I ‘d be in Heaven!!!!! : )
    Great Post!!! I loved reading about the doorbells! : )

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