Before the Police Whistle, Rattles signaled Alarm!

Alarm Rattle ca1860_1

The image above is of an alarm rattle from the middle 1800s, made in the US, and a type that would have been used by some police forces, fire brigades, and watchmen. The user would grasp the handle and swing the weighted end around in the air, causing each of the gear teeth to pull and then release the heavy wooden reed against the next gear tooth. Each release made quite a loud SNAP! and the distinctive rattle could be heard for blocks in a quiet city at night. This old rattle is held together with wooden pegs, establishing it’s age. Most rattles were manufactured by tool-making companies.

Similar designs were made hundreds of years in the past, and the earliest police uniforms in England during the 1840s included a pocket in the tail of the coat to hold the officer’s rattle.

The next image is of two rattles from the later 1800s – a large 9″ rattle with two reeds and a small two-reed rattle that could fit into a coat pocket. The small rattle has a metal weight to help it spin more effectively, and was probably for a watchman. The large rattle originally had a small knob on the top of the weight, presumably to help turn it if there wasn’t room to just twirl it.

IMG_1144 (1)

The Joe Phenix Detective Series novels (1878-1894) don’t mention rattles, possibly because by then the police rattle was no longer widely used in New York where most of the stories were set. However, many of the officers in those stories signal to each other while patrolling at night by rapping their nightsticks on the cobblestones in the street. The nightstick shown below meets the 1890s specifications for the New York Police Department. It has a blue tassel (it should have two but one is missing), signifying the owner was a “Foot, Bicycle, or Harbor” patrolman or sergeant. The small brass plate was stamped with the officer’s badge number.

Nightstick 1 edit

This ad for police equipment sold by the John J. Tower Company appeared in an American Centennial guide published in 1876. It pictures a rattle with folding handle, which must have been much easier to carry.

Version 2

Interestingly, that ad shows both a rattle and a whistle. In England, the Metropolitan Police tested rattles and whistles around 1883 and found that the sound of the whistle carried over the greatest distance. Rattles were soon out of use for police, but continued in use in other areas. Wooden ships of the Navy used them for signalling the crew to stations through the 1800s, and in the first world war rattles were one of many types of noise-makers used to signal gas attacks. Farmers have used simple versions to run off birds from their fields, and sports fans have used rattles at games in the twentieth century. But police forces seem to have discontinued them by the end of the 1880s.


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