How the Liberty Bell boosted U.S. morale during World War I

The Liberty Bell is undoubtedly one of the most cherished symbols of American values, although it wasn’t always revered in such a way. In fact, in the early 1800s, it was abandoned and sold for scrap.

Reports of how it dodged demolition, why it was coined with “liberty,” and when it may have gotten its famous crack fill U.S. history books. But what’s the basis for it becoming such a national relic?

A few years back, when author and Penn lecturer Stephen Fried, a 1979 alumnus, was conducting research for his book “Appetite for America,” he stumbled across a story of the Liberty Bell from World War I—its patriotic train trip across the country.

“The Bell was loaded onto the train, called the Liberty Bell Special, and stopped at hundreds of places across the country,” Fried says.

It didn’t take long for the Liberty Bell to work its magic. During its four months on the road, nearly a quarter of the country’s population came out to see it. In 1915, it was the unifying symbol the nation was in desperate need for as the world raged with war.

Eager to dive deeper into the Liberty Bell’s voyage, Fried recruited a group of Penn students as research assistants. While teaching them how to do historical research as a storyteller would, Fried guided his students as they weaved through documents, journals, scrapbooks, and artifacts related to the Liberty Bell, found deep within the archives of Philadelphia’s libraries and historical centers.

“I spent hours and hours in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania archives,” says Melanie Bavaria, a former student of Fried’s. “The documents would be really fragile, sometimes falling apart. It was so interesting to see how Philadelphia and the Liberty Bell were symbols for the nation. What was happening here really mattered.”

They discovered passengers on the train who detailed their days in diaries; scanned every newspaper article pinpointing the political climate surrounding the Liberty Bell; and noted the scene at each of the Bell’s stops.

“It’s been fascinating to learn of the tension surrounding who could touch the Liberty Bell, and how it was perceived,” says Rebecca Heilweil, a current School of Arts & Sciences student working with Fried.

Years of research finally came to fruition last month, as these findings were detailed in a cover story in Smithsonian. The feature, titled “How the Liberty Bell Won the Great War,” dons the magazine’s red, white, and blue cover. There’s a detailed map of all the Liberty Bell’s stops—those that were planned and impromptu alike (the latter happened quite frequently, Fried says). In the online version, a slew of black-and-white images give a boost to the multimedia piece.

Finally seeing it in the flesh is rewarding to the young writers, especially Bavaria, now a budding freelance journalist in New York.

“It’s been a long time coming to see something produced out of all this work, which we can now share with the world,” she says. “It’s also particularly interesting right now, as a lot of the division our country faced then is relatable to things going on now. While it’s a historical piece, it’s definitely still relevant today.”

Bavaria adds that being able to see this project from beginning to end was incredibly rewarding.

“It’s been such a huge feat,” she says. “But I see myself now referencing those research skills Stephen taught me in my current work all the time.”

Fried notes there is much more information that was found that couldn’t fit in the magazine piece. Time will tell what comes of it.

“It’d be interesting to write a book about it, or do a documentary, maybe a museum exhibit,” he says. “I’ve learned it’s rare a piece of in-depth reporting goes unused.”

Liberty Bell