Silver table bells were traditionally used to call attention to servers during a formal dinner. In a less formal setting, table bells (otherwise known as dinner bells or desk bells) were used to summon families to the dining room, signifying that dinner was ready.
There are many different styles of desk and table bells, varying from small and neat serving bells to elaborately decorated Victorian silver bells. More rustic variations on the dinner bell can also be found throughout history. For example, the twentieth-century farm (or ‘ranch’) dinner bells that were mounted on posts outside of the kitchen door and rung loudly to send the message that dinner was ready to family members working on the fields.
In more formal situations, table bells were used primarily to summon servants to the dining room to wait on guests. This custom was prominent in America, where members of staff would typically leave the room between serving diners. In the UK, this was not traditionally the case. Instead, in the context of a formal dinner party, servers would typically remain present throughout the meal (normally standing against the walls in between serving). Therefore, table bells were not necessary for traditional English dinners, and if present, their purpose would most likely have been purely ornamental.