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    

Antique Mid-19th C St Louis Concentric Millefiori Glass Paperweight Doorknob YqzAntique Vintage Victorian Ornate Iron Door Knobs Back Plates Hardware Salvage5 Vintage Art Deco Green Bakelite Phenolic Catalin Drawer Cupboard Door HandlesLot Antique Victorian Glass Door Drawer Knobs Vintage Cupboard Handle Hardware4 X Vintage Antique Style Glass Clock Face Drawer Cupboard Door Knob Handle PullPair Of Very Rare Art Nouveau Vintage Brass Door Handle Finger Plates 31cm18 Antique Vintage Glass Crystal Door Knobs 1 Amethyst Purple 6 Pair 12 Pc Antique Vintage Glass Crystal Brass Door Knobs Lot 1940's BeautifulDepression Era Vintage Crystal Glass Drawer Knobs Vintage Door Pulls Lot Of 12Huge Pair Old Ornate Gilt Bronze Door Pulls/handles-17 1/2" Long-french EmpireVintage Glass Door KnobsVintage Antique Lot 4 Brass Glass Interior Closet Door Knobs 1928 BungalowHuge Lot Victorian Mallory Wheeler Arabic Door Knobs Hardware Etc. Estate FreshLot Vintage Door Handles Set 7 Plus Handles Knobs Strikers TrimLot 4 Antique French Porcelain Hp Doorknobs Flowers Gilt Accents * Sevres StyleOrnate Victorian Bronze Door Knobs Vintage Knob Set Hardware RosettesAntique Vintage Sun Turned Crystal Glass & Brass Double Door KnobLot Of Ten Antique 12 Sided Glass Door Knob Sets 3 Vtg Glass Door Knobs - 12 Point [fluted] Dark Purple [amethyst] & ClearAntique Old Windsor Pattern Lot Victorian Ornate Knobs Hardware Back PlatesMatching Eastlake Door Knobs Back Plates Ornate Victorian Brass/bronze 4 PieceVintage Antique Brass & Glass Handle Door Knob | Rs AxVintage Lot Of 10 Glass Door Knobs Octagon And Dodecagon Shape Knobs.Antique Vintage Victorian Art Nouveau Lorraine Door Knobs Back Plates HardwareSet Of 3 Vintage Crystal/glass Doorknobs With Hardware All In Working ConditionAntique Purple Glass DoorknobsFlawless- Ice Aqua Cd 175 Hemingray-25 Door Knob InsulatorOld Church Iron Door Hinges Circa 1900( 25 ) Vintage Glass Door KnobsFive Pairs Of Victorian Eastlake Doorknobs With Hardware! 10 Total Knobs!Vintage Chicago Fire Department Brass Fire House Door Knob.Vintage Ornate Victorian Door Knob Backplate,screen Door,solid Brass,very Nice!!2 Antique Victorian Art Nouveau Bronze Brass Safe Or Vault Door Knob Handles 6 Sets Of Vintage Glass Door Knobs, Ready To Install!Rare Antique Intenational Order Of Oddfellows Brass Door Knob Odd Fellows Ioof2 Pair Eastlake Door Hardware Antique 4- Knobs Ornate Victorian Brass Broze 6 Victorian Door Knob Deco Door Plates Hardware Vintage Brown KnobsRare Antique Glass Honey Comb Door Knob Set,skillman,vintage Farm House ToolAntique Brass Door Plates Ornate Cathedral Spires Door Knob Window LatchOne Vintage 12 Sided Clear Glass & Brass Door Knob Set W Back Plates - No LockAntique Door Hardware Lot Of 4 Ornate Brass Door Knobs Antique Vintage Style Blue Dragonfly Drawer Cupboard Door Knob Handle Pull KnobCat And Butterfly Drawer Pulls Door Knobs 13 Looks Like Laurel BurchRare Lackawanna Railroad Terminal Doorknob, Emblematic 1907, Hoboken Nj, SargentRare Brass Antique Victorian Door Knob Key Plate Vintage Ornate Fancy DecoHandhold Collection ~ Lady Liberty ~ On Old Door Knob ~ Catnap*primitivesLot Of 17 Original Black Porcelain Antique Door KnobsAntique Victorian Brass Door Knobs & Matching Back Plates Ornate Fr. Vermont BldAntique Lot Glass Brass Door Knobs Cast Iron Mortise Entry Locks Sets Backplate Mixed Lot Of Antique Art Deco Glass/crystal & Brass Door Knobs - 3 Pairs Total Set Of (2) Early Antique Ornate Spelter Metal Ornamental Finials Or Knobs! Nr!Antique Cast Brass Door Knob Leaf Design Clover Design Silver Plated Door Knob7 Sets Of Vintage Glass Door Knobs, Ready To Install!Vintage Lot Brass Door Knob Back Plates Keyhole Doorknob Faceplates (18)Vintage Glass Door Knobs Vintage Brown Plastic Bakelite? "dining Room " Door SignVintage Lot Of 27 Original White Porcelain Antique Door Knobs HardwareLot 2 Vintage Crystal Glass Door Knob Set UnscratchedPair Of Antique Cast Iron Doorknobs €Antique Barn Door Handle Thumb Latch Set