A World of Merriment: Japanese Bell Figurines

The information I discover about the items I sell in my Etsy shop never ceases to amaze me.

Even the most innocuous items can have a fascinating history!

At first glance, these appear to be nothing more than the kind of cheaply-made Japanese ceramics so popular in the early days of the 20th Century.

But they’re bells!
They were made in Japan sometime after 1921 when the country of origin began to be required on imports to the U.S.
It didn’t take long to find out that they’re popular among Japanese porcelain/ceramic collectors as well as those who collect bells of all types. But it took me forever to discover their possible origin. When I did, I was very surprised!

The Japanese fell in love with bells as far back as 7,000 B.C. They made them from clay in the likeness of Daruma, one of the founders of Zen Buddhism. They often rang the bells on New Year’s Day to usher in a year of good health and fortune.

Meiji Daruma (1868 – 1912)
In the 19th Century, Daruma bells began to be fashioned from ceramic as toys for children. Soon, their use expanded into souvenirs for ladies who traveled throughout Japan. Most were made in Kyoto.

The name in Japanese どれい【土鈴】also includes the character for “servant” (dorei), implying that the bells were also used to summon the help.

This vintage clay bell, from the 1960s, is probably similar to those made during the Meiji period as souvenirs. Photo courtesy of Japanorama, Etsy.

This vintage clay bell, from the 1960s, is probably similar to those made during the Meiji period as souvenirs. Photo courtesy of Japanorama, Etsy.

I suppose that by the 1920s, clever potters realized that Americans loved everything made in Japan.
They began to design the bells to appeal to American tastes. While some featured traditional Japanese figures, others portrayed Southern Belles and other familiar American characters.

What to look for.
The bells are usually small, around 5” tall, and have a ceramic clapper attached by a very thin wire that wraps around two small holes in the back of the figure (if you see a similar figurine with the two holes and no clapper, it won’t be worth as much). Many are marked “Made in Japan” unless they were made in the 1940s, in which case they might be stamped “Occupied Japan.” I haven’t heard of any fakes or reproductions, so odds are whatever you find is an original.

An unusual and affordable collectible.
Most people have no idea that the ancestry of these bells is so noble, so I imagine that thousands have already ended up in landfills. They deserve to be preserved, since they will never be made in the same way again.

Whether you love Japanese porcelain and ceramics, or just love to collect bells, Daruma and its descendants may just be what you’re looking for!

If you love learning about antiques as much as I do, follow the blog so you won’t miss the next article.
And enjoy the hunt!

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About sarathurston

I'm a marketing communications writer who also loves antiques and collectibles. You can find my shop on Etsy at http://www.etsy.com/shop/JanvierRoad
This entry was posted in Antiques, Collectibles, Etsy, Porcelain, Why Are Antiques Important? and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A World of Merriment: Japanese Bell Figurines

  1. Judy Grossman says:

    I have a colorful porcelain bell,says Japan inside,Its a fat man,blue hat,orange coat,yellow pants on
    A green base. Great shape 3″ high. Could you email me any idea what its worth. ?

  2. Pingback: A World of Merriment: Japanese Bell Figurines | From the desk of Sara Thurston

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