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 also collect railroad memorabilia, while others go after door knobs with the names of large public school systems on them—New York, Chicago, and Detroit are widely collected.
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.