In the 18th and 19th centuries, hinges served two important purposes. First, doors were heavy, so hinges had to be strong enough to support their weight. Strap hinges served this utilitarian purpose very well, but when a door’s design demanded something more, a large rectangular hinge gave metal artisans ample surface for decoration.
Strap hinges were frequently attached to doors with thumb latches, the precursors to door knobs. The length of a strap hinge helped distribute the door’s weight, while its wrought-iron construction gave it plenty of strength. The decoration on strap hinges was usually minimal—hammer marks in the surface, bevels at the edges, a shape such as a circle at the end.
Large rectangular brass, bronze, and iron butt hinges, on the other hand, received more design attention, even though their leaves remained hidden between the inside edge of the door and its jamb. A hinge’s barrel, inside of which was the hinge’s pin, often offered of sample of the hidden decoration on the hinge’s leaves, which would be fully revealed only when the door was opened.
Naturally the decorations on hinges followed those on the door knob itself, as well as on the escutcheon that surrounded the keyhole. On front doors, the designs might also be repeated on the door knocker. These practices were particularly widespread during the Victorian Era, when Gothic, aesthetic, and Greek revival styles were popular. Later in the century and into the 1900s, Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts hinges were paired with their respective door knobs and plates.
In addition to engraving designs on the leaves and barrels of hinges, artisans also had a good deal of fun with the finials that decorated either end of the pin's barrel. There were plenty of plain round ones, of course, but others were shaped like church steeples or chess pieces, their tiny surfaces decorated with everything from geometric patterns and floral motifs to lion heads.
The trouble with most vintage hinges for people living in modern homes is that 19th-century hardware dimensions don’t always match 20th- and 21st-century doors and jambs. The good news, though, is that this relative incompatibility makes hinges fairly affordable, whether you want to put them to use or just admire them for their beauty. If you fall into the former category, consider a vintage screen-door hinge, whose bulky barrel houses a small, strong spring.
As with door knobs, some of the 19th-century American hardware manufacturers to look for include Russell & Erwin, Corbin, Sargent, Clark, and the Metallic Compression Casting Company.