I used to think the doorbell was a modern invention. Push the button on the porch and a bell rings in another part of the house entirely. Like switching on a light or answering a telephone call, I assumed it was a modern sensation.

But no, the electric doorbell was invented in 1831. And the word “doorbell” itself dates back to at least 1815. The concept itself is even older. Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, writing of a visit to London in 1808, observes with surprise that unlike houses in other parts of Europe, the houses in London feature doorknockers instead of bells to announce visitors. He found the knockers infinitely more useful than a bell because “the knocker may be so handled as to explain who plays upon it, and accordingly it has its systematic set of signals. The post-man comes with two loud and rapid raps, such as no person but himself ever gives. One very loud knock of less vehemence denotes a servant or other messenger. Visitors give three or four. Footmen or coachmen always more than their masters; and the master of every family has usually his particular touch, which is immediately recognized.”

French visitor Louis Simond makes much the same observation the following year while describing the dinner hour rush of carriages through the streets of London. “Stopping suddenly, a footman jumps down, runs to the door, and lifts the heavy knocker—gives a great knock—then several smaller ones in quick succession—then with all his might—flourishing as on a drum, with an art, and an air, and a delicacy of touch, which denote the quality, the rank, and the fortune of his master.”

The bell, by contrast, was deplored as imparting no information about the ringer. I’ve not been able to discern anything about the type of bell Espriella refers to; every house of that era that I have ever visited has a knocker or nothing.

I used to work with a guy who, when he had something to say, would come up to a coworker’s door and scratch with his finger nails like an obsequious rat. It gave everyone the creeps, but I think he meant only to be respectful.

In his case, most of us would have preferred the anonymous, disrespectful doorbell.


This is an encore posting of an article originally appearing on Living History in January of 2007.  It’s up as part of my Regency series in honor of the release of Deceptive Behavior while my daughter and I are in New Orleans for the Jump Rope portion of the Junior Olympics.