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]



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    

Set Of 3 Vintage Antique Door Rim / Box Locks Brass Handles Knobs ReclaimedVintage Antique Glass Door Knobs 5 Matching Double Sets Vintage Antique Brass Or Bronze Door KnobSherle Wagner Door Paired Handles, Gold Plate, Acanthus PatternGlass Door Knobs Collection Of 26 Sets Vintage/antiqueVintage Purple Amethyst Glass Door KnobsMarvelous Vintage Depression Glass Door Knob Set W/ Star Chartreuse UraniumLot Of Vintage Door Knobs, 3 Sets One W/ Arts And Crafts Back Plate, 1 SingleAntique/vtg Lot 16 Ornate Skeleton Key Hole Door Knob Back Plates Parts RestoreAntique Vintage Victorian Ornate Brass Door KnobsAntique Vintage Old Brass Door Pulls Handles Knobs Five Pair For RestorationVintage Architectural Salvage Door Knobs Lot Of 100 Glass, Brass And SteelAntique Victorian Eastlake Brass Doorknob Set Fan Leaf 1800s Vintage Interior X4Lot Antique Door Knob Plates Deco Mission Victorian Door Plate Hardware RosettesAntique - Victorian Door Hardware Set - Door Knobs & Lock & Door Plate - 1800sAntique Bronze Russel Erwin Victorian Doorknob Set SignedLarge Brass Figural Lion Face Head Door Knob W/ Plate Antique/vintageAntique Salvage 5x Arts & Crafts Copper Door Finger Push Plates Joseph WalkerAntique - Victorian Cast Brass Doorknob - Butterflies - 1800s Door KnobAntique Ornate Solid Brass Eastlake Victorian Door Knob Set Antique Decorative Deco Brass Door Knob SetAntique 5 X Art Nouveau Secessionist Draw Handles Brass I.w&s Old St. English4 Sets (8) Vintage Antique White Porcelain Door Knobs W/ Latches House SalvageVintage Antique Glass Door Knob Lot With Hardware3 Pair Lot Of 6 Antique Solid Brass Door Knobs Victorian Floral Vtg Old HandleLot Pocket Door Antique Vtg Eastlake Victorian Door Knob Key Lock Back Plate Mix Lot Vintage Antique Glass Drawer Cabinet Knobs Pulls, Door Handle, HardwareGlass Door Knobs One Sided Set Of 7 Vintage/antiqueAntique Green Crystal Glass Door Knob2 Sets Antique Glass Round Clear Glass Door Knobs W/ Center Starburst 2 ¼ "diamVictorian Brass Doorknob Set / Monogram For Northeast High School / Kansas CityVintage Ornate Brass Door Knob Set W/backing PlatesVintage Victorian Eastlake Art Deco Door Knob Lock Mortise Face PlateAntique Brass Door Knob LotDecorative Antique Late 1800's Cast Brass Door Knob And Plate 1888Vintage Glass Door KnobsDoor Knobs / Handles Collection Of Antique And Vintage Door Furniture.1965 1966 Mustang Fairlane Fords Nos Door Lock Knobs Antique Ornate Door Knobs With Shaft Back Plates Lock Set Key Strike Plate BrassVintage Mid Century Modern Starburst Door Knob Brass PlateAntique Glass And Porcelain Door KnobsVintage-11 Brass Doorknobs-some Marked "r"- All From Reisch Bldg. Springfield,ilLot Of 19 Antique Vtg Art Nouveau Victorian Door Knob Key Hole Lock Back PlateLot Of Nine Demonstration Practice Teaching Training Cutaway Lock Door KnobAntique Brass Or Bronze Eastlake Aesthetic DoorknobSet Of Matching Small Vivtorian Door Knob Back PlatesFour Vtg Sets Of Glass Octagon Door Knobs W/ Brass HousingAntique Vintage Pair Brass Bronze Large Lion Head Door Pull Or KnockerAntique Door Knobs Four (4) Pair Great Eastlake Victorian Pressed Brass PatternOriginal 1930 / 50s Art Deco Cream Door KnobsBakelite Door Knobs Etc ~ White/cream/ivory Art Deco Era ~ New And Used Job Lot ~~vintage Set Of 2 Matching Glass Crystal 12 Point Door Knobs - L@@k~~ 5 Vintage Door Knobs 3 Glass White Knobs 2 Brass Old Knobs Antique Huge Emtek Hardware Lot - 25 Door Knob Sets - Model 8100 & 8200 TurinoHeavy Bronze Eagle Door HandlesOrnate Antique Brass Doorknob & Latch Set R. H. CoAntique Ornate Eastlake Brass Door Hinges Dated 1879Antique Victorian Door Knob Set W/ Back Plates & Mortise Yale Lock Brass BronzeAntique Victorian Eastlake Brass Door Knob Back Plate & Lock SetAntique Wooden Door Knobs