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]

Old Woodworking Machines

Old Woodworking Machines

This collective website, which started as an online discussion forum, now also includes a large database of manufac… [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]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Pair Vintage Cast Brass/bronze Antique Masonic Door Knobs 2ds1042Alice In Wonderland Style Door Knob, Working Movie Prop,life SizePair Vintage Cast Brass/bronze Masonic Door Knobs With Backplate/lockset 3ds1060Antique Old Vintage Barn Door Sliding Hangers Hardware Track Type Original15 Vintage Antique Clear Glass & Brass Door Knobs, Very Good Condition 4 X Vintage Antique Style Glass Clock Face Drawer Cupboard Door Knob Handle Pull2 Vintage Ornate Design Door Knob Back Plates/ Face Plates Big Lot Of Antique Vintage Glass Brass Metal Door Knobs Handles Sets Antique Door Knobs Lock Hardware Glass Brass Porcelain Victorian Art Deco Rare4 Antique Ornate Brass Door Knobs + Double Key Hole Plate Round Plate & KeyholePair Antique Brass Cupboard Handles Fist And Bar Handles Circa1890Antique Purple Glass Door Knob / Handle - No Shaft - Star Burst Design - (aa)Vintage Key Holes And 3 Brass Door Knob Plates1949-60 Chevy Nos Gm Door Lock Chrome Knob Button, Buick,cadillac,olds,pontiacVtg Copper Door Backplate Victorian Daisy & Tiger Door Knob & Others6 Vintage Antique Glass Crystal Door Knobs 12 SidedPair Vintage Cast Brass/bronze Masonic Door Knobs With Backplate/lockset 3ds1061Seven Vintage Glass Door Knobs, 3 Sets Plus HardwareOld Bronze Door Knob Set From The U.s.customs House In Mobile Alabama6 Pair Antique Fluted Glass Door KnobsVintage Antique Copper Decorative Door Knobs DoorknobsBig Lot Of Antique Vintage Glass Brass Metal Door Knobs Handles SingleAntique Fancy Interior Door Knob Mortise Set Complete Unused Old Hardware StockFine Corbin Aesthetic Motif Brass Passage Door Knob Set 1885 Vernacular SchoolVintage Glass Drawer Knobs And Handles 24 Piece LotVictorian Eastlake Large Door Hinges Set Of 2 Vintage Ornate Pair Of Door Knob Backing Plates L721- Lot Of Assorted Antique Hardware- Door Knobs, Locks, Hooks, Pulls, Etc.Big Lot Of Antique Vintage Glass Brass Metal Door Knobs Architectural SalvageAntique Cast Bronze Door Knob Set Orbin Lock For Parts Or Use Pair Of Antique Thumb Latches Barn Door Gate Handles Metal With Plates & Bolts Vintage Metal Door Knob Backplates-mixed LotVintage Door Knob Steel Brass Mixed Lot Primitive Rusty Shabby Salvage Harware City Of Chicago - Board Of Education Door Knob / Brass Knob / School KnobLot 9 Antique Hardware Victorian Brass & Glass Door Knobs Mercury InsertsAntique Vintage Art Deco Door Knob Lock Skelton Key Plate Lot Of 4Antique Vintage Ornate Pair Of Door Knob Back Plates Vintage Antique **blue And Green Glass Door Knobs Handles**Antique Solid Brass Screen Door Knob & Handle & Threaded Rod, Vintage OldBlack Porcelain Door Knob SetL@@k Stunning Rare Vintage Solid Copper Door Handle Gibbons W'hampton 1.3kg 40cmAntique Victorian Purple Crystal And Clear Door Knobs Knob16 Antique Glass Crystal & Brass Large Door Knobs 8 Sets Octagon Barn Find Public School City Of New York Door Knob8 Matching Antique Large Glass & Brass Door KnobsPair Of Rare Cast Bronze Seal Of New York City DoorknobAntique Ornate Victorian Cast Bronze Brass Door Handle Latch With Thumb LatchOne Antique Barn Door Handle Thumb Latch SetAntique Door KnobVictorian Eastlake Ornate Brass Drawer Pulls (18 Pcs) Furniture Cabinet HandlesFour - Vintage Large 3" X 12" Industrial Door Push Pull HandlePair Antique Vintage Art Deco Door Knob Backplates Back Plate W KeyholeVintage Glass Door Knobs With Plates And LatchesVintage Texas Tech Door KnobVintage Art Deco Door Knobs Metal With Swirl Detailing - 2 With Connecting RodLot Of 7 Sets Of Antique Glass Door Knobs 14 Glass Knobs Different Styles ShapesAntique Purple Glass With Brass Door Knob SetSmall Assortment Of Old Glass Door KnobsLot 24 Door Hardware Antique Doorknobs Hinges Door PlatesVtg Set Of 3 Victorian Brass Door Knob Back Plates Decorative Round 1 7/8” Trim