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]

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]



Most watched eBay auctions    

16 Sets 32 Knob Antique Glass Door Knobs Crystal Brass Clear Handles 12 6 Sided 9, Art Nouveau, Copper Door Finger Plates, Reg No 505417, C1907.Vintage Antique 6 (lot) Glass Door Knobs Purple Clear Large Old Iron Slide Bolt Barn Door Latch Hardware Dead Bolt Latch VintageVintage Antique 13 (lot) Clear Glass And Brass Door Knobs Antique Glass Door Knobs 4 SetsAntique Vintage Mercury Glass Rosette Door Knob Rich Purple Color Free ShippingLot Of 17 Sets Of Vintage 12 Sided Glass & Brass Door KnobsAntique Door Knob Set Letter "e" Vintage Architectural Hardware Steel Cast IronAntique Victorian - Vintage Door Knobs And Backplates - Very Ornate - Nice Set!Edwardian Toilet Latch Handle + Keep.Large Lot Vintage Door Knobs Plates Brass Glass Porcelain Birdhouse, SteampunkVintage Pair Of Art Deco Brown Bakelite Door Knobs And Backplates Large Old 11"forge Iron Barn Door Handle Hardware Vintage Door PullLot Of 16 Knobs Lock Hardware Mortise Antique Vintage Misc Parts Door Ceramic True Blood Prop Door Knob Dog Face Hardware Sam Merlotte's Office OriginalHuge Lot Of Old Antique Brass /metal & More Door Knobs-hardware2 Heavy 5 3/4" Cast Iron Gate Pull Barn Door Shed Pull Handle Rusty Brown FinishOrnate Victorian Screen Door Latch Set Door Knob Hardware Vintage Bronze Knobs22 Beautiful Antique Crystal Door Knobs - 11 Sets20 Schlage Hall & Closet Passage Latch Door Knobs In Bright Brass(10) Great Antique Matching Glass Doorknobs W/ Star In Center Clear & PurpleEstate Designer Italian Milor 14k Gold Door Knob Drop Earrings 11.2 Grams NrLot 5 Antique 8 Sided (octagon) Glass Crystal Door Knob Sets 10 Knobs(3) Matching Antique 12 Facet Glass Door Knob Handles W/brass HardwareVintage Glass Doorknobs-brass Art Deco Back Plates Plus LockLot Antique Doorknobs Backplates Vintage Door Knob Handle Repurpose Art HardwareTwo Pairs Of Vintage Wooden Door Knobs1867-1868 Era Design Political Door Knob & Back Plate Illinois State House?Lot Of 44 Vintage Black Porcelain Door Knobs8 Schlage Passage Latch Door Knobs In Satin Nickel 6 Old Door Knobs Sets20 Schlage Bed & Bath Privacy Locking Latch Door Knobs In Bright Brass16 Antique Original Vintage Collection Lot Glass Crystal Door Knob Handles4 Cast Iron Victorian Door Knob Back Plates With Acanthus Rosette Design 6 Pairs Art Deco Bakelite Door Handles Plus 2 Backing PlatesAntique Art Nouveau Gilt Metal Door Finger Plates X 6 Barn Find Great Design.Vintage Antique Light Purple Glass & Brass Door Knob 12 SidesVintage Glass Doorknobs-brass Art Deco Back Plates Plus Lock-very Nice2 Deer Door Handles Must L@@kReclaimed Original Georgian Sprung Door Latch With Brass Handles And Slide Bolt Lot Of 6 Vintage Style Amber Glass With Brass Spigot Drawer Pulls Knobs Handles Antique Vintage Lot Of 14 Door Knob Back Plate As IsAntique Brass Doorknobs Set Ornate Vintage Hardware Old Door Parts ArchitecturalVintage Pair Victorian Brass Plated Door Knobs Embossed Beaded Floral C ScrollsVintage Lot Brass Door Knobs W/matching Back Plates. 4 Sets Knobs,10 Backplates.Lot Of 5 Vintage Style Amber Glass With Brass Spigot Drawer Pulls Knobs Handles Antique Victorian Nouveau Oval Brass Door Knobs & Backplates Lock Box Set Chic 1800's Corbin Ceylon Door Knob Set With Back Plates Strike Plate Mortise Set #3 Lot Of Eight Ornate Victorian Bronze Door Knobs Hardware Brass Knob Ten Reclaimed Antique Solid Brass Door & Cupboard Knobs & Four SpindlesLarge Lot 38 Antique & Vtg Glass/crystal Drawer/door Pulls/knobs Clear & GreenAlice In Wonderland - Door Knob 3 Pin SetAntique Victorian P.&f. Corbin Bronze Pocket Door Lock Set 1800's One Antique Repousse Owl Head Drawer Pull Brass Iron Victorian Furniture AesthetVintage Door Knobs5 Schlage Privacy Locking Latch & 1 Schlage Passage Latch Door Knobs Two Glass Vintage Door Knobs Lot Antique/vintage Door Hardware Glass, Porcelian Knobs, Lock Box, Plate.. Etc94-04 Mustang Misc Billet Interior Parts Dress Up Knob Covers Door Locks Ebrake