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    

6 Vintage Solid Brass Furniture Drawer / Door Drop Handles,1930,s, Gothic StyleVintage Deco Bakelite Door Handles And Back Plates Hexagonal3 Old Brass Safe Door HandlesSet Of 8 Vintage Glass Door Knob And Square PlatesVintage Antique Door Hardware Brass Knobs & Door PlatesVintage Elgin 12 Pt Rosette Glass Door Knobs -10 Knobs 5 Shafts 9 BackplatesAntique Eastlake Style Ornate Brass Door Knobs (3) All Original+beautiful Lot!Antique Vtg Victorian Eastlake Brass/bronze? Ornate Door Knob & PlatesPair Of Vintage Reclaimed Wooden Door Handles / KnobsLot Of 2 Vintage Antique Glass Crystal & Brass Door KnobsMixed Lot Of 7 Brushed Nickel Silver Door Knobs * 3 Privacy & 4 Hall & Closet Huge Lot Of Antique Crystal Glass Door Knob Sets, 12 Complete Sets- 24 KnobsFour Antique Solid Wood And Brass Door Knobs1968 1969 1970 1971 1972 1973 Ford Nos Door Lock Knobs Shelby Mustang Cougar GtLot Of 2 Vintage Antique Glass Crystal & Brass Door Knobs # 2Vintage Antique Brass Bronze Flat Style Ornate And Unique Door Knob Antique Glass Doorknobs Vintage Ornate Door Knob Handle Hardware Repurpose ArtAntique Doorknobs And Brass Hardware Lot Set Vintage Crystal Glass Handles Rare Antique Victorian Vintage Round Crystal Glass Ball Door Knobs HardwareRare Masonic Door KnobsVictorian Door Knob And Backer Plate Ornate Cast Iron And Steel Vintage AntiqueLarge Lot Of 25 Vintage Or Antique Glass Door Knobs, 8 Points, And Accessories3 Sets Of Vintage 8 Point 2" Diameter Clear Glass Door Knobs SpindlesPair Of Vintage Reclaimed Brass Door Handles / KnobsSet Of 6 Antique Reclaim Arts And Crafts Style Brass Door Drawer Pull Handles Vintage Lot Of 10 Glass Door KnobsLot 10 Of Vintage Bennington Ceramic Glass Metal Ornate Knobs Door Lock HardwareVintage Antique Crystal Glass Door Knobs & Assembly With Door Plates & BonusVintage Mixed Lot Of 5 Glass Door KnobsVintage Or Antique Mortise Locks With Glass Door Knobs Large Lot2 Cast Brass Arts & Crafts Deco Eastlake Victorian Door Knob Back PlatesPorsche 356 Pre A Glovebox Knob Door Eschusion Rare Carrera Continental4 Sets Art Deco Bakelite Door Lock Plates & Knobs + 2 Spare PlatesAntique Victorian Vintage Clear Round Glass Ball And Brass Door KnobVintage New York City Classroom Door KnobTwo Cast Iron Door Plates Swirl Glass Knobs Pull Antique Brown Gold (stkr1y2k)Antique Vintage Purple Amethyst Glass Door KnobsPair Antique Solid Wood Rosewood And Brass Door KnobsVintage Glass Door KnobsAntique Vintage Brass & Glass Fluted Crystal Door Knobs Lot 14 W/stems HardwareAntique Door Knobs Plates Mortise In Locksets Large Lot Glass Brass Art Deco Porsche 356 A Door Eschusions Quarter Window Knobs RareVintage Brass Doorknob Backplates & Escutheon Plates Lot Of Twelve (12)Lot Of Genuine Antique Walnut Swirl Bennington Door Knobs 5 Pair & 7 Loose KnobsPair Vintage Brass Eastlake Doorknob Door Knobs Antique Ornate VictorianAntique Crystal Glass Door Knobs With Lockset With Face PlatesAntique Vintage Glass Door Knobs Set Of 2 ( 1 Complete) Plus Brass Strike Plate Antique Victorian Door Knob And Plate SetVintage Porcelain Door Knob And Lock Set With KeyVintage Door Hadrware Glass KnobsAntique Victorian Cast Iron Door Knocker And Door Pull / Knob SetAntique Lot 5 Door Knob Sets Crystal Glass And MetalVintage Lot Of 5 Glass Door Knobs1 Antique Metal Door Knobs Architectural Steampunk Old Antique Brass Knob Two Vintage Antique Glass Door KnobsAntique Brass Door KnobOld Brass Drawer Handles X 3 Large And 4 Small, Matching Vintage Glass Door KnobVintage Door Knobs Glass & Lucite W/ Rose Doorknobs Flower Hollywood RegencyAntique Door Knob Lot Of 10 Black & White Porcelain Knobs + 3 Bennington Patina!