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History of the Bell Tent

In Aid of ShelterBox Disaster Relief

Circular canvas tents supported by wooden poles have been used by many different cultures and tribes across the globe for thousands of years. The temporary nomadic lifestyle meant they needed a structure they could quickly erect and dismantle and most importantly carry with them to their next destination. The most well known of these type of structures is the Native American Tipi but if you look at the 'Lavuu' used by the Sami reindeer herders in Scandanavia , the similarities are clear. Also the 'Chum' tents used by the herders of Mongolia and Siberia all have similar characteristics.

The picture below shows a Saami family in Norway in early 1900. The tent they are standing in front of is called a 'Kata' and the one in the background is a 'Lavuu' (Reproduction by Photoglob AG Zürich) The main difference with these early tents is the large number poles forming the frame and the opening at the top of the tent to let smoke out. The basic design remained unchanged for hundreds if not thousands of years.Saami Family Tent


The modern day bell tent had it's origins in the 1850's in America. An officer in the U.S army called Henry Hopkins Sibley saw the lodges used by the Native American Indians and took many of the design features present and refined them to create what is now known as the bell tent.

Sibley patented the modern bell tent design in 1856. The design he patented had many features similar to the Native American Tipi. The main difference being instead of the 12 long poles forming a frame with the Tipi, his design used one central pole that finished in a smaller tripod that could be erected over a fire pit or stove. Sibley bell tentThe original Sibley design stood about 12 feet (3.7m) high and was 18 feet (5.5m) in diameter and it could comfortably sleep 12 soldiers and their kit. The canvas was held taught by 24 pegs and later models used a cowl over the poles to aid ventilation and to allow smoke to escape.

Sibleys design was used extensively by the US army during the Utah Expedition of 1857-1858. According to his agreement with the US Department of War he would receive 5 USD for every tent made. Unfortunately Sibley resigned from the US Army to join the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War and Sibley never received any royalties on his patent. Nearly 44,000 tents were made during the war.

Since those early days, the original design has gone through many modifications and has been used during many military campaigns. They were used extensively by the British Army during the Crimean War and also during the famous Zulu conflict. Up to 15 men would sleep in the tent, radiating out likes spokes with their feet next to the central pole. The older soldiers would be at the back with the newer soldiers next to the door flap which would be draughtier and they would get trodden on during the comings and goings of the night.



British Army Bell Tents


Luckily in recent years there have been many developments and modifications to get to the modern bell tents we use today. The canvas we use today is a much improved material with built in mould inhibitors and anti UV properties. It is also a lot lighter than the canvas used in the past. Many of the features that we see as standard in modern bell tents has come from years of research and development. The zip in groundsheets we use today would have been welcomed by the soldiers in the Crimea War and the use of secondary mosquito mesh on all the doors and windows is a luxury that we wonder how we ever did without.

So when you purchase a modern Cool Canvas bell tent you are buying into a tried and tested British design classic that has gone through years of vigorous use by soldiers in the harshest of conditions. For details on our range of bell tents and matching awnings please email



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