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    

56 Antique Eastlake Ornate Victorian Solid Brass Door Knob - Plate - Handle LotOrnate Vintage Victorian Gothic Brass Door Knobs Plates Backplates No Reserve!Antique Vtg Brass & Glass Fluted Crystal Door Knobs Lot 13 6 W/stems HardwareAntique Lot Vintage Door Knobs Crystal Glass Porcelain Brass Black Drawer PullsLot Of 10 Victorian Ornate Glass Door Knobs Handles Vintage Great Northern Railway Railroad Door Knob LockLot 5 Antique Vintage Victorian Metal Door Knob Back Plate Skeleton Key HardwareGreen Milk Glass "door Knob" Old Lightning Rod BallRare Original Pair Of Russell & Erwin Doggie Dog Brass Doorknobs 1870Antique Wooden Door Knob Sets ~2 Sets ~ Carved Wood Door Handle Original PatinaVintage Lot Of 27 1920's Art Deco Crystal Glass Doorknob Door Knobs & RosettesAntique Eastlake Brass Ceylon Pattern Doorknob Hardware Set (knob, Plate,shaft)Servants Bell Butler Maid Door Knobs Handles Victorian Knocker Brass CompleteOld Door Knobs. BakeliteOriginal Victorian Brass Door Knobs Very Ornate With Dragons & BirdsPair Of Heavy Vintage Brass Door Pulls/handlesReclaimed Ceramic Door Finger Plates, Door Knobs And Fittings Floral PatternAntique Glass Door Knob Set. Vintage Door Knobs.Ornate Brass Door Knobs And Trim Plates W/ribbons Sherle Wagner Nr!Lot 4 Antique Vintage Victorian Metal Door Knob Back Plate Skeleton Key HardwareLot Of 5 Antique Glass Crystal And Brass Door Knob Sets - 8 Sided Vintage Antique Door Hardware: Knobs, Back Plates, Leftovers Drawer Misc Art Lot3 Pairs Of Original C1920's/30s Art Deco Polished Brass Sprung Door HandlesVintage Cobalt Blue Cut Glass Door Knob Set & Connecting Rod ~starburst Design~Genuine 1930s Bakelite Door Knobs Antique Reclaimed Round Brown Bakelite Door Handles X 4 Matching All With PlatesVintage Draw Handle Brass Furniture Drawers Desk Cup Hooded Pull2-1 Pair Antique Solid Brass Public School City Of New York Door Knobs OriginalPair Of Beautiful Vintage Ornate Brass Door Knob Handles Victorian Steampunk #6 Three + Antique Eastlake Victorian Cupboard Door Latch Iron And Brass Lot Vintage Door Plates Deco Mission Door Plate Knob Hardware Brass RosettesAntique Lot Of 5 Crystal Glass & Brass Door KnobsSet Of 4 Antique Book Cadillac Hotel Brass Door Knobs W/rosettes C1920'sLot 9 Vintage Antique Door Hardware Knobs Porcelain Black White Brown Brass PlatAntique Victorian Green Uranium Glass Door Drawer Knob Handle-embossed Grip-rareVintage Brass Door PullsAntique Vintage Glass Door Knobs Set Of 10 12 Sided Very Nice And CleanAntique Door Knob & Escutcheon Corbin Circa 18902 Vintage Door Knobs - Glass & BrassAntique Brass Door Knob, Vintage HardwareAntique Victorian Door Knob And HardwareLot Of 12 Antique Porcelain Door KnobsVintage Clear Crystal Decorative Glass Door Knob SetsAntique 8 Sided Glass And Brass Door Knobs/w BackplatesAntique 5 Door Knob Sets 2 Knobs 12 Sided Star Clear Glass, Brass & PorcelainLot Of 13 Pairs Of Antique Door KnobsAntique Brass Rope Door Pulls X2Antique Gate, Door, Barn Handle. Rusty Rustic HanmadeVintage Draw Handle Chrome Furniture Drawers Desk Cup Hooded PullAntique Benjamin Franklin Emblematic Door Knob Solid Bronze* Rare 6 Matching Antique Vintage Old Glass Door Knobs 3 Sets Hardware & KeysVintage Brass Cherub Cup Handles Door Draw Cupboard X3 Glass Door Knobs And Backplates Great Value Great For Arts And Crafts! L@@k!Antique Copper Art Nouveau Door Knobs Doorknobs Escrutcheon Plates Lock HardwareOld Black Porcelain Doorknob Knob With 101 Ranch Ponca City Oklahoma EngravedAntique Victorian Door Knob And HardwareAntique 10 Vintage Clear Glass Door KnobsPair Of Beautiful Concave Victorian Ornate Brass Door Knob Vintage Steampunk #11Public School City Of Reading Door Knob / Reading Pennsylvania / Brass KnobAntique Door Knob Back Plates Brass Hardware Plus Lock