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]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique Door Knob Handle Brass Snowflake Backplate & Mechanism Hardware VintageVintage Art Deco Amber Glass Door Knob Brass Fixture Ornate Round BallVintage Dark Red Cut Glass Door Knob Set & Connecting Rod ~starburst DesignOrnate Cast Iron Eastlake Carpenters Tool Box Handles Steamer Trunk Chest PullsAntique Door Knob Handle Brass Mcc Initials Heavy Border Decoration Hardware Old4 Set's Vintage Round Clear Glass & Brass Door Knob "set's."Vintage Victorian Brass Door Knob Matching Set, NiceSet Of Antique Victorian Brass Door Knobs & Backplates, Decorative, EastlakeVintage Green Cut Glass Door Knob Set & Connecting Rod ~starburst DesignJ 20 Pc Asst Lot Vintage Door Knobs Brass Steel Porcelain Bennington Glass Etched Mirror Glass Vintage Door Finger Plate Push Bevelled Glass Clover ThistleAntique Ornate Bronze Victorian Doorknobs With Back Plates - Two Sets8 Beautiful Ornate Antique Brass Door Knobs W Escutcheons & Spindles 4 Sets ~5lbBeautiful Set Antique Victorian Door Knobs With Lock And Back PlatesStitch All Star Resorts Do Not Disturb Door Knob Sign Artist Proof Ap Disney PinPair Art Deco Copper & Brass Door Handles And Finger Back Plates (1) ExcPair Antique Door Knobs And BarVintage Antique Brass Bronze Public School City Of New York Door Knob6 Art Nouveau Drawer HandlesAntique 8 Point Violet Purple Amethyst Glass Door Knob! Gorgeous!!!Rare Vintage Glass Ball Door Knob Set, Complete, NiceVintage Brass Nickel Door Knobs Handles For Old Sink Kitchen Antique HardwareHuge Eastlake Mail Slot Door, Vintage Cast Iron & Beautiful - (3365)Hand Blown Amber Color Glass Door Knobs With Shaft And Plates VintageLot 4 Antique Vintage Victorian Metal Door Knob Back Plate Skeleton Key HardwareGlass Door Knobs AntiqueAntique Vintage Solid Brass Bronze Metal Door Knobs Old Style 3/8"square Shaft10 Matching Vintage Brass ? Door Knob Back Plate Skeleton Key Lot Of 7 Vintage / Antique Glass Door Knobs Brass Nickel 3 SpindlesVintage/retro Door Handles X4 Pair Of Vintage Brass Door Knobs - Complete With Original Back PlatesPrimitive Bat Makedo Vtg Door Knob Grungy Folk Art Halloween Fall Boo BannerVintage Cobalt Blue Cut Glass Door Knob Set & Connecting Rod ~starburst DesignVtg Ornate Door Knob Set W/ Back Plates Lock Mechanism Key Old Antique HardwareSet 5 Old Door Knobs And Plate Key Holders Salvage Tarnished Antique Vintage Art Deco Style Vintage Wardrobe Door HandlesBrass Door Handles & KnobsAntique Brass Door KnobSeven Old Victorian Stamped Brass Door Knob Back Plates OnlyPair Of Vintage Ornate Brass Door Knobs...nice!Vtg Art Deco Glass Door Knob With Back Plates1 Ornate Brass Nickel Door Knob Handle For Old Sink Kitchen Antique HardwareA Pair Of Original Vintage Brown Bakelite Door Knobs/handles And Back PlatesVintage Brass Door KnobRare Vintage Antique Hotel Monogram Bronze Door Knob Set W/ Back Plates & LockVintage Glass Door Knob Lot Nr Clear Brass Sets Singles 5 Vintage Sets Of Door Knobs, 4 Sets Are Glass And 1 Set Is BrassAntique Clear Glass Door Knobs With Latch AssemblyRare Vintage Cd175 Hemingray-25 Door Knob Aqua Blue Insulator U.s.a. Antique/vintage Brass Door Knobs JoblotVintage 1930s Pair Of Reclaimed Brass Door HandlesVintage Brass Door Knobs And Cathedral Design PlatesThe Oliver Hotel Silverware And Orig. Door Knob -south Bend, Ind.Pair Art Deco Copper & Brass Door Handles And Finger Back Plates (2) ExcOld Wood And Brass Doorknobs X 5 Pairs5 Pieces Antique Estate Find~ Brass Victorian Door Knob Round Back Plate Large Vintage Reclaimed Pair Of Brass Door Handles 1930s"large Front Door Brass Security Chain" Knobs Handles Knocker Brass Lock BoltVintage Crystal Glass Door Knob Handle Set Good Condition W/hardware Old Pretty3 Pair Antique Stamped Steel Copper Plate French Pocket Door Pull Plates