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]

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]



Most watched eBay auctions    

Pair Heavy Brass & Ebony Antique Store Door HandlesLot 5 Antique 12 Sided Glass Crystal Door Knob Matching Sets 10 KnobsPair Of Most Unusual Large Brass Door Handles - Mythical Face & Animal HandleAntique Victorian Doorknobs Lot Vintage Door Knob Handle Hardware Repurpose ArtAntique Vintage Brass/bronze Door Knob, Door Plates, Escutcheon Matching LotVintage Victorian Brass Door Knob, Plate And Lock Set C.1890's Nice!Lot Of 11 Sets Vintage Glass And Brass Door Knobs Five 19th Century, Brass And Tin ,chest Of Drawers Cup HandlesLot Of 20 Vintage Glass Door Knobs Most 12 Pointed Vintage 6 Pair Clear Crystal Glass And Brass Door Knobs1965-66 Nos Mustang & Shelby Inside Door Lock Chrome Knobs - Pair Rare" 8 X Art Nouveau Drawer Pull Handles. Original & Authentic From Item C.1890-1910Lot Of Assorted Antique/vintage Door Knobs & Hardware~glass~brass~etc! Nr!Brass Ornate Vintage Large Door Plates, Knob, Copper? 2 Types.Lot Of Ten Victorian Door Knobs Hardware Ornate Brass Knob Vintage Antique Brass Door Knob With Back Plate Modified For Coat Hook Hanger Antique Brass Eastlake Turn Knob Door Bell Ringer Old Vintage HardwareVictorian / Edwardian Hand Painted Door Knob, Finger Plate & Keyhole Cover Antique Ornate Door Knob Brass Copper Pair 2 Victorian Lock Key Plate All BrassLot Of 20 Antique Vintage Clear Glass Door Knobs Architectural Salvage Free ShipAlice In Wonderland Door KnobScarce Brass & American Brilliant Cut Glass Door Knob Finial NrVintage Glass Door KnobsAntique (circa 1940s) Lot Of Doorknobs, Locks, Plates And HingesLot Of 6 Vintage Antique Clear Glass Drawer Cabinet Door Knobs Pulls HandlesVintage Glass &brass Doorknobs Back Plates Plus LocksAntique Rim Lock Victorian Skeleton Key Vintage Door Knob Catch Lockset Hardware4 Eastlake Victorian Ornate Cast Iron Door Knob Escutcheon Plates RosettesLot 8 Antique Hardware Victorian Brass & Glass Door Knobs Mercury Inserts3 X Oriental Bird Drawer Knob Cupboard Drawer Door Knobs Handle Pull Pink BlueVintage Mid Century Modern Weiser Acrylic Lucite Ruth Richmond Door KnobsAntique 19c Rare Wrought Iron Door Handle Latch Large Snake Form GothicMid-century Original Vintage Fancy Door Knob,lock & Solid Brass Decorative PlateLot Of 16 Vintage Brass Door Knobs + 15 RosettesLot Of Vintage Fancy Decorative Door Knobs Brass Plates Birdhouse, SteampunkOrnate Victorian Screen Door Latch Set Door Knob Hardware Vintage Iron KnobsAntique Vintage Ornate Door Plate & Clear Glass Door Knob Handle Vintage Glass Door Knobs And PullVictorian Brass Door KnobAntique Bronze Lion Head Door KnobVintage Door Knobs,back Plates,lock,latch,old House Hardware,ornate,antique?Lot Of 4 Vintage Antique Clear Opal Glass Drawer Cabinet Door Knob Pulls HandlesAntique Solid Brass, Ornate Sargent Entry Door Lockset, Handle, Lock, Plate Lot Of Antique Vintage White Porcelain + Door Knob Sets, Locks, Accessories2 X Art Deco Period Butterscotch Amber Bakelite Phenolic Catalin Handles Eastlake Victorian Ornate Bronze Door Knob Escutcheon PlatesAntique Glass Door Knobs 10 Sets Eight 19th Century Brass Door KnobsLot 2 Vintage Crystal Glass Door Knob Set Unscratched8 Ornate Victorian Sash Lifts Finger Drawer Pulls Pocket Door Acanthus Leaf Vintage Glass Doorknobs Doorknob 2" D. With Brass Backing Plate 3.5"x1.5"Vintage (1) Victorian Cast Iron Doorknob SetLot Of 2 Antique Purple Amethyst Glass Door Knob Set Knobs Doorknob Vintage OldVintage Art Deco Moderne Machine Age Door HandleVintage Brass Ny City School Doorknob Historical Memorabilia Antiques HardwareAntique Lot Of Door Plates- Door Knobs And PullsVintage Ornate Doorknobs From San Francisco VictorianBeautiful Vtg Ornate Antique Victorian 1890 Brass Mallory Wheeler DoorknobVintage Antique (lot) Clear Glass Door Knobs And PartsAntique Mortise Brass Door Knob Set, Dead Bolt, Orbin