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]



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 8 Point Purple / Amethyst Glass And Brass Door KnobsLarge Lot Vintage Antique Door Knobs Backplates Ornate Oval Back PlatesGenuine Art Nouveau Period Door Finger Plate C1904-1905. Rg No 4689092 Pair Old Antique Vintage Reclaim Crystal Glass Door Knob Handles L3307- Lot Of Antique Brass Door Knobs- Some Ornate Victorian Antique Old Vintage Door Hardware Knob Russell & Erwin Vintage Everite Bakelite Door Knobs & Backing Plates X12 With Microtite SpindlesVintage Sherle Wagner Drawer Pulls Knobs Pair Vintage Antique Ornate Door Knobs Must See !!Lot Of 6 Matching Antique Glass Door Knobs (3 Sets Of 2) W/ Original Hardware1 Pair (2) Antique Ornate Victorian Eastlake Door Knob Knobs Bronze ?Antique Brass & Bronze Victorian Decorated Door Knobs Lot Of 14Antique?/vintage Amethyst-colored Glass Door Knob/purple/12 PointsVictorian Brass Door Finger Plates Aesthetic DesignOrnate Victorian Russell Erwin Bronze Door Knobs W/shaft & Lock SetVintage Architectural Salvage Door Knobs Glass Porcelain Lot Of 9 Matching PairsAntique Coca Cola Soda Pop Old Country Store Porcelain Door Knob NiceRare Antique Doorknob Century Building Ornate Figural Brass Eastlake18 Antique Vintage Glass Crystal Door Knobs Hardware Steampunk1928 1929 1930 1931 Model A Ford Inner Door Open Knob Handle PairSet 3 Art Deco 12” Handles Chrome & Oak For Drawer Cupboard Or 1930's Furniture1 Pair (2) Antique Ornate Victorian Eastlake Door Knob Floral Knobs Bronze ?Antique Glass And Brass Door Knobs - 5 SetsMatching Pair Antique Old Ornate Cast Iron Eastlake Keyhole Door Knob BackplatesAntique Ornate Victorian A Set Of Door Knob And 2 Plate Cast BrassAmethyst Door Knob Antique Purple Glass & Brass Fitting 8 Sided Vintage Solid Dark Ebony Wood Door Knob With Brass Detail6 Sets Of Original "iris" Bakelite Door Knobs - Backplates & Locks2 Pair Of Shelton Towers Hotel Door Knobs In NycVintage Lot Glass Door Knobs- 5 Sets- 2 Plates + 2 LocksLot Of Vintage & Antique Glass Porcelain Brass Door Knobs Knob Doors Hardware Superior Quality Corbin Antique Solid Brass Doorknob Set Ca 1875 W/ Back PlatesLot 2 Antique Vintage Victorian Metal Door Knob Back Plate Skeleton Key HardwareAntique Victorian Brass Pair Of Beehive Door Handles - Just Under 2" DiameterAntique Art Nouveau Brass Door-push / Finger Plate With Rd. No. & Iconic DesignLot 4 Antique Vintage Victorian Metal Door Knob Back Plate Skeleton Key HardwareLot Of 8 Antique Vintage Clear Glass Cabinet Door Drawer Handles 3" & 8 PullVintage Antique Clear Glass Door Knobs 8 Point Brass BaseVictorian Solid Brass Reeded Door Knob Miniature Dolls House Large Traditional Lion Head Door Knocker Knob Handle LgwPair Of Antique 1870's Bronze Door Knobs2 X Antique/vintage Pairs Solid Brass Oval Door Knobs/handles - Art DecoVintage Architectural Salvage Door Knobs Lot Glass, Brass And SteelSet (3) Vintage Antique Glass Crystal Brass Glass Door Knobs2 Vintage Ornate Brass Not Matching Door Knob Back Plates 6 Vintage Antique Black Porcelain Doorknobs And 3 ShaftsLot 52 Vintage Victorian Metal Door Knob Back Plate Skeleton Key HardwareOriginal Rare Antique Old Aqua Milk Glass Door Knob SetVintage Antique Large Pair Of Brass 30" Long Door Pulls, Handles, Or Towel BarsSet (3) Vintage Antique Glass Crystal Brass Glass Door KnobsFine Quality Solid Brass Vintage Fish Front Door Knocker Knob Handle 1.7kg NrLot Of 9 Antique Ornate Glass Door Knobs Vintage Old Antique Bronze Door KnobFine Quality Solid Brass Vintage Fish Front Door Knocker Knob Handle 1.7kg NrAntique Art Nouveau Brass Door Knobs Reclaimed3 Antique Art Deco Uranium Vaseline Glass "sellers" Threaded Cabinet Glass Knobs 2 Sets Of Vintage Brass/glass Victorian 12 Point Door KnobRare Vintage Old Antique Bronze Door Knob & Backplate Tiffany PatternOriginal 1930s Bakelite Door Handles (5cm Diameter) + Backplates + 115mm SpindleAntique Eastlake Victorian Door Knobs Knob Set With Extra Matching Knob