Throughout most of history, door knobs (also spelled as one word, “doorknobs”) weren’t knobs at all. If a door needed to be secured, wood or wrought-iron latches or crossbars, the precursor to the deadbolt, did the trick. A wooden peg in a loop of rope was good enough in most cases—if you could afford to get fancy, you might install a metal hook and eye.

By the early 19th century, most people in the newly independent United States opened doors with their thumbs, which is to say, their doors were fitted with wrought-iron thumb latches. Some of the earliest brass door knobs in the U.S. also appeared around the same time—they were fixed to surface-mounted locks.

Mortise locks gained prominence in the mid-1800s. This development appears to have spurred a renaissance in door knobs—from brass and bronze to clear glass and millefiori paperweights—as well as in the escutcheons that surrounded the knob and keyhole. Most knobs were round, of course, but some had angled pavilion tops while others were shaped like drums.

The artistry that was lavished on door knobs, escutcheons, hinges, and other types of home hardware mirrored the prevailing styles of the day. Gothic revival homes and buildings were fitted with Gothic revival doorknobs. The rosewood knobs installed on the doors of Greek revival structures sometimes featured the profile of a helmeted warrior, but more often this style manifested itself on bronze and brass hardware as repeated patterns and designs.

Followers of the Aesthetic Movement, which ran roughly from the Civil War until the end of the century, fitted their doors with knobs and escutcheons that were festooned with floral as well as geometric shapes. Some of these plates were rectangular while others were outlined to follow various patterns. Plates with a second key hole usually came with a pivoting flap that covered the bottommost of the two openings since it was seldom used.

Later, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Arts and Crafts hardware seemed to herald a return to the thumb latches of 100 years before, although the hand-hammering was deliberate rather than a function of necessity. Art Nouveau pieces were less self conscious and more comfortable with being beautiful for beauty's sake.

Of particular interest to door knob collectors are those pieces that bear the imprint of governmental and other organizations. Railroad-station hardware is prized by those who al...

Then there are door knobs that are sought simply because their shapes and surfaces are so appealing. The Ercola or bear claw knob, as well as others that resemble scallop shells, are just two examples of these rare, shaped door knobs. Also in demand are porcelain knobs, which were mostly used in passageways and were either printed or painted with flowers and floral patterns.

Manufacturers in 19th-century America to look for include Nashua Lock Company (1834-1889) and Russell & Erwin, which purchased the Metallic Compression Casting Company of Boston in the 1870s. Corbin was a competitor of R&E, but the two firms merged in 1902 to form the American Hardware Corporation.

Finally, one of the founders of Yale & Towne, Linus Yale, Jr., got his start making bank locks. He died in 1868 just two weeks after partnering with Henry Towne, which is probably why the name of their original company, The Yale Lock Manufacturing Company, was eventually changed to include Towne's last name, too.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Alloy Artifacts

Alloy Artifacts

A tool collectors’ dream, this site is a deep repository of photos and info on 20th century hand tools and the co… [read review or visit site]

Vintage Machinery

Vintage Machinery

This collective website, which started as an online discussion forum, also includes a large database of manufacture… [read review or visit site]

Drainspotting

Drainspotting

Josh and Cam Larios have created this site enabling people to upload and 'tag' photos of historic or artistic manho… [read review or visit site]

A Millers Falls Home Page

A Millers Falls Home Page

Randy Roeder has carved out a niche for himself with his fine website devoted to the history of the Millers Falls C… [read review or visit site]



Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique Authentic Benjamin Franklin Brass Furniture Drawer Pull KnobA Rare Antique 19th Century Cut Glass Uranium Vaseline Glass Door Handle Set Of Four Victorian Pairs Brass Rim Lock Door Knobs 13 Assorted Antique Brass Glass Door Knobs For Doors Or CraftsArt Deco Vintage Door Handles Chrome Lucite Bakelite ? Large 6" Draw Cabinet X 5Vintage Antique Glass & Brass Door Knobs Lot Of 2 Knobs And HardwareAntique Glass Door Knob Lot One Milk Glass Mixed VarietyAntique Vintage Victorian Solid Brass Ornate Unusual Door Knob & Backer Plate2 Vintage Door Knobs New York City Public SchoolGroup Of Six Vintage Art Nouveau Door Knob Back PlatesVintage Collection Of Brass Glass Door Knobs Plates And HardwareVintage Original Victorian Glass Door Knob LotAntique Glass Door Knobs Architectural Hardware Victorian Handles2 Victorian Brass Door Knobs With Fixed Plates.Doorknob Antique Milk Glass Victorian Octagon Handle Rosette Knob Milkglass DoorMixed Lot Of 6 Schlage Door Handles Knobs Deadbolt Sets 380171 G32Antique Bronze Embossed Woman Warrior Gladiator Door Knob Amazing Detail! Vintage Door Knobs Lot Crystal Glass Hexagon Brass Lot Antique Victorian Lot Vintage Glass Brass Door Knob Set With HardwareRh Co Antique Victorian Old Cast Brass/bronze Door Knob Back Plate 09357 & Knobs6 Art Deco Vintage Door Handles Lucite Bakelite 3" Brown Cream Stripe 50's DrawAntique Copper Door Knob Lot Of 2Vintage Glass Door Knob With Center Gold Star Inside17 Antique Glass Door Knobs - Nice Assortment!Lot 5 Antique Victorian Eastlake Door Knobs Brass Heavy Ornate Knob Restoration2 Sets Antique Victorian Brass Doorknobs Ornate High Quality 19th Century KnobsLot Of 11 Sets Of Antique Brass Door Knobs With Rosettes4 Art Deco Vintage Door Handles Lucite Bakelite ? 4" Brown Cream Stripe 1950'sHuge Lot Of Antique Vintage 12 Point & 8 Point Glass And Brass Door Knobs12 X Vintage Everite Bakelite Door Handles Registered 854692Lot Of 20 Antique Door Knobs Cast Iron Steel Glass BrassVintage 3 Sets Glass Door Knobs And 2 Sets White Porcelain Door KnobsVintage Antique Door Knob LotLovely Antique Brass Door Knob Floral Design Embossed GeometricAntique 19th C. Victorian Eastlake Swirl Fig Leaf Ornate Cast Brass Door KnobsVintage Architectural Salvage Door Knob Hindge Lot Glass Latch Old Hardware NrVintage Mixed Lot Of Glass 12 Pt & Other Door Knobs Mortise Locks Spindles ++10 Large Antique Back Plates For Glass Door Knobs Or Crafts4 Antique 1880's Victorian Eastlake Bronze Door Knobs & Rosettes , Key Plates 1870 Antique Vintage Ornate Victorian Nouveau Solid Brass Plate For Door KnobLot Of Vintage Brass Face Plates And Ornate Brass Door KnobLot Of Vintage Door Backplates And Door Knobs Rusty And PaintedVintage Pair Of Victorian Art Nouveau Style Heavy Brass Ornate Door Latch KnobsLot Of 3 Matching Antique Oval Brass Door Knob Back Plates2 Matching Victorian Brass Antique Door Knob+lockset+hardware+plate 7 Pc LotVintage Antique Miscellaneous Door Knobs And Door HardwareAntique Ornate Brass Victorian Door Knob Set W/ As Is Branford LocksetLot Of 15 Vintage Door Knobs Deco Knob Victorian Door Hardware Bennington KnobsMixed Lot Of 9 Vintage Brass Steel Metal Door Knobs Antique Fancy Old BeautifulVintage Art Deco Doorknob Brass Musical Notes SingleAntique Double Brass Door Knobs Russell & Erwin Floral Geometric Designs Nice! 14 Damaged Vintage Door Knobs Victorian Door Hardware Bennington Knobs BrassSchlage Dexter Containe J10str619 Knob Door Pass Sat Nic Stratus Lot; B01-35Mixed Lot Of 7 Schlage Keyed Entry Door Handles Knobs Deadbolts Sets 379720 C10Georgian Brass Door Handles Large Huge! Vintage Hardware Lot. Glass Door Knobs, Art Deco, Hinges, Entry Door PlateLarge 10'' Antique Barn Door Thumb Latch Set2 Pairs Antique Ebony Beehive Door Knobs, Spindles, Grub Screws And Back PlateHeart Shaped Antique Brass Door Knob Ornamental Design Leaves Swirls Detailed!Vintage Horizontal Door Rim Lock Set Black Japanned With Skeleton Key