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    

Russell & Irwin Bronze / Brass Geisha Girl Door Knob Antique Victorian Door KnobLot 9 Antique Glass Cut Crystal Brass 12 Sided Door Knobs 4 Vtg Sets 1 ExtraRare Antique 1880's Thomas Kane Post Office Box Door 6 1/4" X 5 X 1/2" W/ Key Vtg Victorian Fern & Flower Door Knob Set AntiqueRare Antique 1880's Thomas Kane Post Office Box Door 5 1/4" X 3 1/4" X 1/2"Antique Y&t Back Plate And Door Knob Set Set Of 5 Five Rare Antique Glass Door Knobs Nice!!!!2 Sets Antique Victorian Eastlake Door Knobs W Backplates Mortises Russell Erwin Stunning 1880's Brass Door Finger Plate .aesthetic Design Vintage Pair Of Ebony Beehive Door Handles - 50mm - No BackplateArt Deco Set Of Vintage Crystal Glass & Brass Door Knob With Art Deco Backplates1969-1970 Camaro Chevelle Nova Gto 442 Nos Gm Door Lock Knob 69 70 Rs/ss Z28Vintage Pair Of Ebony Beehive Door Handles - 50mm - One BackplateAntique Y&t Back Plate And Door Knob Set 2 Pair Vintage Edwardian Art Nouveau Solid Brass Door Pull Handles Plus Finger PVintage Glass Door Knobs 9 Sets /plates Plus Extras Cut Glass Art Deco ScrantonLot Of 10 (ten) Salvaged Glass & Brass Door KnobsVintage Glass Purple Door KnobGorgeous Antique Green Glass Door Knobs Hardware...l@@k!Antique Vintage Brass & Wood Door Handles 19thc Victorian Era Bronze Door Knob From The Dr Pierce Building Buffalo Ny12 Antique Art Nouveau Doorknob Sets Mortises & Back Plates Architectural SalvagVintage Glass Door Knob Set With Decorative Victorian Back Plates C1940'sAntique Ornate Iron Rim Lock C1900 Shapleigh Lockset Skeleton Key Door Hardware 12 Antique Brass Cupboard/drawer KnobsFabulous Large Midcentury Italian Brass Double Door Handles - Fontana Arte EraBrass Door Knobs4 Brass Old Door KnobsAntique Victorian Y&t Back Plates And Knobs- Set Of 3Antique Y&t Back Plate And Door Knob Set2old Eastlake Cast Bronze Door Knob Back PlatesSet Of 13 Matching Crystal Door Knobs AntiqueVintage Pair Of Teak Door Handles - 55mm - One Backplate,one Key PlateVintage Set Victorian Style 12 Point Fluted Clear Glass Door KnobsAntique 1886 Brass Bronzed Doorplate Bluebell Drum Handle Engraved Door Knob Fc6 Antique Glass Door Knob Hardware Sets W/ Extra Knobs Cat Door Knobs And Plates Old And UniqueAntique Yale & Towne Victorian Solid Brass Recessed Pocket Door Pulls Y&t UsaPair Of Vintage Porcelain Cherud Door KnobsAntique Copper Door Knob Set Back Plate & Victorian Door Knobs4 Antique Glass Door KnobsEastlake Door Knobs, Backplates & Lockset4 Pairs Of Reclaimed Victorian Style Brass Door Knob SetsVictorian Ornate Brass Door Knobs, Lock Set, Back Plates,hinges And ScrewsSet Of 2 Gainsborough Genuine Porcelain Door Knob SetLot Of 2 Antique Vintage Octagonal Milk Glass Door KnobsAlice In Wonderland Door Knob Prop Antique Vintage Hardware Lot Architectural Salvage Crystal Doorknob PatinaBmw 2002 Ti Tii Interior Door Handles, Window Cranks, Vent Window Knobs 1968-77Vintage Lot Of Antique/ Vintage Glass Door Knob Handles1909 Antique Bronze Door Knob - From The Lasalle Hotel In Chicago8 Old Brass Door Finger Push PlateVintage Architectural Salvage Door Knob And Hardware With Skeleton Keys Brass?Antique Brass Bronze Loop Door Handle Pull Wall Boat Tie Ring Vintage Old JettyVintage Pair Of Brass Door Handles - 47mm - No 4Vintage Glass Door Knob Patent Oct. 29, 01 - 2 3/8" DiameterLarge Lot Of 38 Matching Antique Vintage Glass Crystal Door Knobs W/org Hw, 12pt4 Pair Antique Rose Wood Bakelite Door Handles KnobsUltra Security Interior Door Knob Sets, Lot Of 5, Satin Nickel, Privacy LockVintage Decorative Victorian Ornate Door Knob