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    

12 Antique Ornate Crystal Glass & Brass Doorknobs Nice Vtg Estate Lot Lot 5 Antique 8 Sided (octagon) Glass Crystal Door Knob Matching Sets 10 KnobsSet Of 7 Lovely Arts And Crafts Brass Finger Plate Doorplate Push Door PlateTwo Antique Vintage(1) Purple Amethyst(1) Clear Old Glass Door Knobs Lot Of Over 30 Antique Door Handles, Hinges, Locks, And PlatesOriginal Stickley Brothers Arts And Crafts Era Hammered Copper Door Pulls Knob Set Of Antique Ornate Crystal Glass & Brass Doorknobs Vtg Estate Lot 9 KnobsVintage Cut Glass Door Handles 7 Sets 1 Extra Nice Architectural Knobs Brass OldA Set Of 8 Vintage Antique Reclaimed Brass Drawer Handles With Backplates ScrewsAntique Vintage Door Knob Lot Porcelain White Black Restore Repair Part Crafts4 Vintage Glass/crystal Door Knobs 1940s 1950s Door Knobs & HardwareAntique Wooden Inlaid Door KnobAntique Glass Door Knobs On Spindles Octagon Shape Brass Backs 3 SetsSet Of 8 Antique Victorian Reclaimed Brass Chest Of Drawers Handles + BackplatesAntique Glass And Brass Door Knobs-4 Sets Plus Two Bonus Sets-glass Door KnobsA Set Of 6 Vintage Antique Reclaimed Brass Drawer Handles With Backplates ScrewsSolid Brass Bell Telephone Door Knob24 Vtg Antique Solid Brass Ornate Victorian Door Knobs-matching!A Beautiful Pair Of Antique Reclaimed Copper Art Nouveau Door Knobs HandlesVtg Antique 90+ Piece Lot Key Hole Back Plate Knob Spindle Door Hardware PartsBoston Automatic Fire Alarm Co. Rare Door Knob From Their Original OfficeTwo Vintage Ornate / Decorative Brass Matching Pairs / Door Handles.Vintage Brass And Purple Or Amethyst Glass Door KnobsVintage/antique Brown Porcelain Door Knobs With Locks And Trim Plates2 Vtg Antique Solid Brass Ornate Victorian Door KnobsVintage Brass And Purple Or Amethyst Glass Door KnobsAntique Security Chain Latch Lock Door Victorian House Charm Character 4 X Deco Butterscotch Amber Bakelite Phenolic Catalin Chrome Door Handles PullsBell System Telephone Door Knobs, Lock And Face Plates All OriginalAlice In Wonderland Style Door Knob, Working Movie Prop,life SizeAntique Glass & Brass Door Knobs6 Pair Vintage Glass & Brass Door Knobs / Plus 3 Extra Glass KnobsVictorian Solid Brass Handle 34 CmsLot Of Vintage/antique Porcelain And Decorative Door Knobs And Skeleton KeysPairs Of Old Reclaim Antique Art Deco Bronze Door Knob Handles & 2 EscutcheonsLot 2 Sets Antique Glass Door Knobs Very Pretty & Nice Condition NrAntique Eastlake Doorknob Hardware Sets Mortise Locks Lot No ReserveVintage Brass Door Knob SetPair Antique Heavy Large Door Pulls Handles Copper Brass Theatre Opera Art DecoFour Vintage Bakerlite Drawer HandlesVintage Clear Glass Door KnobAntique Victorian Doorknobs Lot Vintage Door Knob Handle Architectural HardwareSet Of 2 Vintage Glass Door Knobs Free ShippingAntique Glass Door KnobsAntique Vintage Ornate Glass Entry Door Knob Set With Keyhole, Plate & Lock BoxSet Of 6 Vintage/antique Victorian/edwardian Brass/bronze Colour Drawer HandlesAntique Cast Iron Monogrammed Door Knob And Locking Back PlateVintage Glass Door KnobAntique Crystal Glass Door Knob With Two Brass Plates And Lock MechanismVintage Solid Brass Door Knobs Lot & Brass Hardware Recovered New York CityLot Of Vintage/antique Glass Doorknobs-clear, Porcelain And Lavender/amethystLot Of 40 Vintage Black Porcelain Door KnobsLot Of Five Assorted Vintage Hamilton Printers Drawer Pulls/handlesAntique Vintage Door Knob Spindle Hardware Large LotLot Of Vintage Antique Glass Door Knobs, Dresser, And Hardware3 Antique Farmhouse Door Knobs - Glass, Brass, & Tigers Eye Porcelain Antique Vintage Doorknobs Door Knobs White Milk Glass Etc.Gorgeous Old Glass/brass Door Knobs (lot) Entry Door Handle Pull With Back Plate Bronze Vintage Architectural Salvage Vintage Art Deco Store Door Handle Large Chrome Decorated Handle Pull Marked Y&t