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]

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]



Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Glass Doorknobs Door Knob Lot 5 Matching Sets, 10 Nice Knobs 12 Points Original Brass Art Nouveau Door Handles 3 Antique Ornate Eastlake Gothic Flanders 9931 Vtg 8" Door Knob Back Plate LotLot Of 17 Matching Antique Glass Door Knobs W/ Brass Collar & Original Hardware Lot Of 16 Antique Metal Door Knob Back Plates Escutcheon W/ Skeleton Key Holes Set Of 12 Antique Glass / Brass Door KnobsLot Of 16 Antique Metal Door Knob Back Plates Escutcheon W/ Skeleton Key Holes Set Of 10 Antique Glass Door KnobsAntique Amethyst Glass Door Knob Set Light Purple, Crystal, 12 Point4 Pairs Vintage (1930) Door Handles Bakelite? Ebony?Lot Of 11 Matching Antique Glass Door Knobs W/ Brass Collar & Original Hardware Antique Ornate Victorian Eastlake Pair Brass Door Knobs And Round Door Plates2 Coca-cola Cast Iron, Old Door Handles. Vintage/antique 1930s Art Deco Black Bakelite Door Knobs Handles Hexagonal ShapeAntique Ornate Brass Or Bronze Eagle Door Knob Set - Very RareAntique Solid Brass Victorian Or Edwardian Era Door Knobs With Woman's FaceSeven Sets Of Vintage Glass Door KnobsVintage Antique Heavy Brass Lion Door Knob Handle 4 Pairs Of Stunning Solid Brass/bronze Door Handles Antique Vtg Glass Door Knob Set With Stamped Brass Ornate Y And T Back Plates Vintage Glass On Brass Door Knob Octagon Amethyst TintLot Of 3 Antique Door Knobs With BackplatesVintage Glass Doorknobs Door Knob Lot 3 Matching Sets, 6 Nice Knobs 8 PointsAntique Glass Door Knobs Backplates Mortise Locks Escutcheons Strike Plates Masonic Door KnobsLot 1c 23 Matching Antique Art Deco Ornate Vtg 6"x2.875" Door Knob Back PlateOriginal Salvaged 1930's Door Knobs & Locks 2 Large Brass/bronze Pair Door Handles Push/pull Bar Restaurant HouseOrnate Victorian Iron Screen Door Latch Knob Hardware SetVtg Antique Lockset Doorknobs Door Knobs Escutcheons Birds Brass? Bronze?Antique Victorian Eastlake Brass Door Knob Set And RosettsAntique Eastlake Victorian Cast Iron Door Knobs & Backplates -rhco 131 ColumbianAntique Vtg Ornate Eastlake Victorian Bronze 10" Tall Door Knob Backplates PairVintage Antique Glass Porcelain Door Knobs Back Plates Lot Of 22 Pieces Job Lot Vintage Door Locks. Free Delivery.Pair Of Vintage / Antique Porcelain & Brass Lever Door Handles / Door KnobsC1910-1920 Brass American Bell Telephone Door Knob Pair & Doorplate Set W/ Bell Lot Of 16 Antique Brass Door Knob Back Plates Escutcheon W/ Skeleton Key Holes Vintage Glass Doorknobs Door Knobs 4 SetsAntique Brass Bronze One Door Knob With Plate Art Nouveau Arts & Crafts OrnateVintage Lot Of 17 Porcelain/metal Door KnobsAntique Beehive Wood And Brass Door Handles - Architectural Salvage 15 Vintage Door Knobs Victorian Door Hardware Bennington Brown Knobs Deco KnobsLot Of Vintage Antique Drawer Pulls Door Plates Metal Porcelain Knobs Hooks StopLot Of 10 Antique Brass Door Knob Back Plates Escutcheon W/ Skeleton Key Holes Antique Rim Locks With Original Brass Knobs And One Brass Keeper-carpenter And CVintage Antique Glass & Brass Door Knobs & Hardware Lot As Found At Estate SaleLot 3 Antique Vintage Crystal Glass Door Knobs Mortise Locks Salvaged HardwareJob Lot Vintage Wooden Knobs. Free Delivery.36 Antique Vintage Black Porcelain Door Knobs Lot 4c Matching Art Deco Antique Ornate Vtg 5.875" Door Knob Back Plate Set6 Nicely Embossed Antique Door Knob Handles #3 Matching18 Old Door Knob Key Plates, Vintage HardwareAntique Victorian Brass Door Knob Set Russell & Erwin 1890Pair Of Antique Cast Iron Door Knobs Unusual Swirl DesignDisney Disneyland 65th Alice In Wonderland Stuck Inside Bottle Door Knob Le PinSmall Collection Vintage Bakelite Door Fittings Knobs Back Plates EscutcheonStunning Antique Large Size Cut Glass Or Crystal Door Knob Handle W Brass PlatesLot Of 12 Antique Vintage Crystal Glass Door Knobs W/spindles Salvaged HardwareAntique Glass Door Knob Diamond Cut Glass Nice