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]



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    

Deco Antiqued Brass Plated Metal Door Knob Backplate 8" Back Plate Key Hole (4)4 Vintage Art Deco Butterscotch Amber Bakelite Door Handles - Phenolic CatalinFabulous Vintage Rare Masonic Mason Brass Door Knob Knobs 1 SetVintage Metal L&n Train Railroad Louisville Nashville Railroad Door Knob PlateAnitque Corbin Pocket Door Lockset With Trim And Key 7 Pair Antique Fluted Glass Door KnobsRare Bennington Multi Color Door KnobsVintage Millefiori Glass Paperweight Door Knob Handle StunningAntique Brass New York City Public School Door Knob Board Of Education Antique Arts And Crafts Solid Brass Bronze Doorknobs Set Lockset And Key& StrikeAntique Arts And Crafts Solid Brass Bronze Doorknobs Set Lockset And KeyPair Of Large Vintage 1940s Brass And Wood Shop Door Pull Handles7 Sets - Antique Glass Door Knobs With Lockset And Escutcheons, No KeysLot Of 6 Sets Of Antique Vintage Glass Door Knobs And Square Shafts 12 Knobs 2-1 Pair Antique Solid Brass Public School City Of New York Door KnobsLot Of (7) Vintage Antique Crystal Glass Brass Closet Door Knobs W/ HardwareMixed Lot Of Schlage Door Knob Handle Deadbolt Lock Entry Kits 609316 L30Rare Vintage Antique Bronze Door Knob With Highly Ornate Floral DesignRare Vintage Bronze Ornate Doorknob With Hardware - Amazing Design!Super Rare Vintage Old Antique Bronze Door Knob With Concave Floral Design35 Vintage Cabinet Door Handles Textured Copper Plated Metal Hardware FittingsVintage Lot Of 39 Glass Door Knobs Handles Architectural AntiqueLot Of 18 Assorted Old Vintage Door Hardware Sets Rim & Mortise LocksVintage Antique Door Knobs Lot Of 8 Glass Crystal Handles W/ 4 Drawer PullsGothic Fancy Doorknob Door Knob Plates Russell And Erwin Cast Iron Antique VtgPair Art Deco Butterscotch Amber Phenolic Bakelite Door Pull Handles 50g EachVintage Old Heavy Antique Ornate Bronze Door Knob With Star Design1 Antique Vintage Heavy Brass / Bronze Victorian Door Knob 1800's Rare Design"""Vintage Style Green Glass Door KnobsAntique Oval Doorknob Knob Waldorf Astoria New York Beefy Cast BrassVintage Lot Glass, Porcelain, Brass Door KnobsLarge Vintage Door Handle Mortise LockLot Of 6 Antique/vintage Door Knob Back Plates Architectural SalvageOld Glass Door Knob LotAntique Door Knob Vintage Door Knob Brass & Cast Iron Door Knob And HardwareVintage Lot Of 68 Doorknobs Glass Ceramic Metal Antique Vintage Passage Sized Emblematic Letter "t" Door KnobVintage Pair Glass Door Knob Set 8 Pointed Light Purple Hue6 Art Deco Bakelite Butterscotch Phenolic Resin Cupboard Handles- Drawer Pulls.Rare Vintage Old Antique Bronze Odd-shaped Hexagon Door KnobAntique Vintage Emblematic "t" Entry Sized Door KnobRare Vintage Old Antique Ornate Bronze Door Knob Or Rat Rod Gear Shift KnobVintage Victorian Ornate Door Knob Plate. Art Deco Solid Brass - Bramante 935Antique Porcelain Bedroom Door Knob White (2sets)Antique Copper Door Handles Gibbons WolverhamptonLot Of 6 Antique Vintage Ornate Glass Mortise Lock Door Knobs12 Vintage Crystal Glass Door Knobs 2" Diameter 12 Point With Some HardwarVintage Brass Front Door Mortice And Brass Handle By Earle 12 Vintage Glass Knobs - What You See Is What You GetNew Cynthia Rowley Vintage Inspired Filigree Door Knobs Ivory Gold IvoryGood Looking Antique Cast Ice House Walk In Freezer Door Latch Handle Deco KasonLarge Lot Of Antique Door Mortise Locks And Hardware - Backplates- EscutcheonsCast Brass Bronze Victorian Russell & Erwin Oval Door Knob Antique VtgAntique, Ornate, Brass Doorknob Set + Door Plates! Floral Design! Unusual! Nice!Antique Original Beehive Wood Brass Door Knob Ebony Cupboard HandleVintage Door Knobs1 Eastlake Bronze Door Knob 1870s HardwareAntique Bronze Brass Arts & Craft Door Knob Single 2.25 InchesOriginal Vintage Brass Public School City Of New York Door Knob, Lock & PlatesLot Of 14 Antique Vintage 12 Point Crystal Glass Door Knob, 7 Sets-all Matching