Door Hardware in the American Historic Record for Archaeological Purposes
Door hardware in the historic record has changed numerous times. Not only do individual countries have differing styles and techniques to manufacture door hardware, but door hardware can even differ within regions of America. With so many different styles that changed continuously for more affordable and safer hardware systems it is difficult to assign solid date ranges and assign a particular way of manufacturing certain types of door hardware, especially when so many pieces of door hardware, namely locks, have for many years on numerous sites been thrown in the category of miscellaneous metal artifacts. Even Noel Hume listed parts of spring traps as “another one of them” (Hume 1969: 245) for a time.
With every category of door hardware come lists of types. For example, door hinges are not just limited to that particular title. There are H hinges, HL hinges, dovetail hinges, strap hinges, cockshead hinges, and many more. These hinges were not just used on the exterior doors of a house, but were also used on closet doors, interior room doors, and barn doors. Depending on the availability of a local smith or the wealth of a particular family, a certain type of hinge (e.g. strap hinge which is usually found on exterior doors) could be found on other doors of the house and accompanying buildings. One element to look for, however, is the finishing on certain hinges. If a strap hinge was used on a front exterior door of a house it would have had more finishing than a strap hinge located on a barn door. “Hand-wrought hinges are uneven; they thin out toward the edges due to hammering. Marks from the blacksmith's hammer will be apparent throughout, but they will be subtle” (Asheford). Another quality associated with locally made door hardware is the rough look of the hinge joints.
When looking through the historic record it is also important to keep in mind that terminology of door hardware changed. What once were listed as hooks and hinges in the 17th century are currently referred to as strap hinges. Cross-garnet hinges are also called T hinges; side hinges as cockshead, H, and HL hinges; and dovetail hinges sometimes as butterfly hinges. Locks also have the same differing terminology to refer to the same item (e.g. the rim lock is also referred to as the box lock). Once the terminology for certain types of door hardware becomes clearer it is easier to begin assigning date ranges to particular forms of hardware, and to beginning identifying those forms.
The early American colonies saw the use of door locks, latches, and hinges made of leather, rope, and wood. Later on, wrought iron door hardware was in wide use, and still later cast iron became popular. Much of the original door hardware for the colonies came from England. Raw materials were shipped over to England and came back as hinges, latches, knobs, knockers, and so on. It was not until the mid-18th century (c. 1765) that the colonists increased their production of these particular goods so much so as to put a damper on the English production. One of the earliest forms of American door hardware was the strap hinge. The first strap hinges were extremely durable and plain, but toward the mid-18th century craftsmanship hit its peak. Pennsylvania Germans have been noted as those “who led the way in the use of iron for decorative purposes” (Howell 1950: 85). One notable feature of door hardware is the wax and wane of decorative features. 15th century doors and their hardware were extremely decorative. Then, doors and their accompanying hardware became less decorative and focused more on function and security. There were individual peaks in decorative manner such as we see in America where door hardware begins with plain forms of an individual manner. Then there was a peak in the craftsmanship of door hardware in the mid-18th century followed by another move to more standardized forms with less ornate features. There are, however, always exceptions to the rule. One such example is the work of Samuel Yellin who drew his influence from medieval-style metalwork. His doors were quite ornate and, considering that they were manufactured during the early 20th century, are considered works of art as opposed to the standard craftsmanship.
“The strap hinge proper (perhaps the ‘Dozen-ware with Hooks’) had a loop at the butt end of the strap and was seated over a pintle driven into the frame. This type was normally used for gates and doors that from time to time needed to be removed” (Hume 1969: 236). Strap hinges are commonly found in the archaeological record. Excavations at Jamestown, Virginia during the 1930s listed them as being recovered from a house, the first statehouse, a tavern or inn, a kitchen, a warehouse, a well, a large dwelling, and an ice pit. Most of the strap hinges along with other excavated door hardware contained little explanation of what the pieces looked like. One strap hinge was listed as having a Dutch influence (from the tavern). This particular strap hinge from the tavern measured 30 inches in length, and might have been attached to a 36 inch door. Another strap hinge measuring 20 inches in length was attributed to use on interior doors or a possible shutter. There were no standard hinge measurements that attributed certain sizes of hinges to a particular location in the house. Certainly, if quite a large hinge is found (like the 30 inch strap hinge listed above) it will be more likely attributed to use on a door than a trunk. Hinges of smaller sizes will be attributed to interior doors, shutters, and furniture.
“Probably no other form of hinge was so generally used, over so long a period, as [the strap hinge]. From the earliest settlements until well into the 20th century [even the 21st century], it survived, making its last appearance as the hinge for barn and outbuilding doors. Of all hinges it is the simplest to make. Essentially, it is an iron strip wrapped at one end with an eye and hung on a hook, bent up in round section for a pin, and drawn into a sharp point at its other end to drive into the timber of the door frame” (Streeter 1974: 15). Nails as well as rivets were used when securing a strap hinge to a door. A rivet would usually be positioned toward the eye allowing for more strength, and nails would be placed in all of the other holes. Most strap hinges were made by local smiths with a few exceptions of imports from England. With this local craftsmanship came local variations. In addition to local variations, variations of strap hinges by a particular smith were evident in the function and placement of a strap hinge. “Hinges for the street doors of public buildings or manor houses required ample strength but more attention to detail than those for a hay barn” (Streeter 1974: 16) Strap hinges can still be purchased today with ornate finials that resemble artifacts in the archaeological and historic records.
Another form of hinge was the H hinge. H hinges were quite standard for domestic doors and are found at numerous archaeological excavations. They were three-part jointed and can be traced back to medieval times. A wrought nail would fix the hinge to the door, and the center hinge in a series would carry the weight of the door. “The purpose of the H shape was to spread out the nailing to avoid a cluster of nails close together, which might split the wood” (Streeter 1973: 22). Many times leather would be used between the hinge and the nail to make the fit more secure. This also allowed for a tighter fit of the hinge when the wood of the door would swell due to heat and humidity. The holes for the nails would have been punched through the metal. When looking at the proportion of a hinge to its pin, the pin’s diameter should be twice as thick as “the plate from which the hinge was made” (Streeter 1973: 23). “H hinges were made from plate or sheet stock, either forged down from bar stock by the smith, or furnished by the ironmonger from the tilt hammer. The blank was cut in a T shape while cold, with shears of chisel, to sizes determined by templates” (Streeter 1973: 23) After the hinge was formed a pin would be driven into the joint, and filing would be done to give the hinge a more finished look.
The HL hinge was an improvement on the H hinge as far as bracing a door was concerned. “The L pattern of the HL served to cross the joint of stile and rail of a panel door and further spread the nailing, but it added nothing to the strength of the hinge. Despite old wives’ tales, there is no religious symbolism inherent in the HL form” (Streeter 1973: 23). The only difference between the H and the HL hinges was a single leg that was welded onto an H form. The L portion of the HL hinge would be nailed to the door. Finials on both the H and HL hinges were common until the mid-18th century at which point they seem to enter into a plainer looking form. Finials of quite ornate pattern were common among 15th and 16th century French designs.
The cross garnet hinge was a blend of two prior hinge forms, the H hinge and the strap hinge. It would sometimes have the same finial patterns as H hinges, and those patterns began to disappear around the same time as the H and HL hinges. “The joint on the vertical strap side is a separate piece of stock shaped and forged welded into position. The joint piece may be lapped with one side of the vertical strap or be bent in half with the vertical sandwiched between. In some instances the joint is made continuous and then cut as is the case with H and HL hinges but in others the parts of the joint are each made separately. In working with rusted and fragmented artifacts from archaeological excavations this difference can help to differentiate between incomplete H and T strap [or cross garnet] hinge types” (Priess 1974: 24).
Dovetail hinges, sometimes referred to as butterfly hinges, were in use during the 17th and 18th centuries. They were not only used on doors but also on trunks, cupboards, and many other forms of domestic furniture. Their identical wing shapes that usually mirror one another across the joint can identify them. More refined versions of the dovetail hinge were sometimes reduced during the forging process to a paper thickness. Dovetail hinges that have an absence of finishing (filed bevels) might have been made by a local smith. “After wrapping around a pin to form the eye, the iron, which extended full width of the leaf,, double thick, was welded together at the forge. After rough forging, the join was cut and filed, the edges trimmed to a template, and bevel filed. Holes for nails were punched over the vise” (Streeter 1973: 36). Size can be used to determine if a dovetail hinge was used on a door or a piece of domestic furniture. Dovetail hinges found to measure six or more inches in total length have been attributed to door use, while dovetail hinges of only a few inches are generally attributed to domestic furniture. As with many other forms of door hinges, the dovetails were manipulated and were added onto other hinge forms. One example is the cross garnet in a dovetail form. When hooks could not be used, the dovetail provided an excellent nailing surface.
The cockshead hinge followed the same principle as the H hinge, but its extremities curled toward the terminals, ending in a cock’s head or another zoomorphic form. “They are remarkably Celtic in character, and although examples are found in the 18th century context they were far more common in the 17th century. While the majority were used for cupboard doors, larger examples are occasionally encountered on interior doors; some seen on the doors of English houses have been filed smooth and are kept polished, contrasting dramatically with the dark color of the wood” (Hume 1969: 237). In contrast to the use of decorative hinges, black hinges (not of the cockshead style) were made of black iron or were painted black. Bright hinges were either tinned or filed smooth. It was stated in a number of documents that colonists would usually paint their hinges so that they would not stand out as much.
The cast iron butt hinge was invented in 1775 and led the way for many other forms of cast iron hardware. The thumb latch has been noted as the butt hinge’s closest follower in the way of cast iron use. “The cast butt was, in its way, as important a development as the inventions of the cut nail, machine cut screw, or the circular saw, in its effects on building construction. No longer need hinges be mounted on the surface with clinched nails, nor doors be hung flush with them, and calling in turn for mortise locks” (Streeter 1973: 43). These hinge forms are found on doors in America and archaeological sites that date to a little after the Revolutionary War. They can usually be found mixed with wrought iron hinges and other wrought iron hardware. Butt hinges could be made with three or five joint sections that did not differ in price from one another. Wrought iron hinges that required forging would increase in price as the number of joint sections increased. “It has been seen that the cast butt represented a dramatic forward step in the march of the industrial revolution, and this has been attributed, quite correctly, to the use of cast iron instead of forging” (Streeter 1973: 47). Butt hinges, although manufactured in more refined forms than the 18th century, are still widely used today.
“The oldest known lock was found by archeologists in the Khorsabad palace ruins near Nineveh. The lock was estimated to be 4,000 years old. It was a forerunner to a pin tumbler type of lock, and a common Egyptian lock for the time. This lock worked using a large wooden bolt to secure a door, which had a slot with several holes in its upper surface. The holes were filled with wooden pegs that prevented the bolt from being opened” (Bellis). The palace was occupied by Sargon II, who reigned from 722 to 705 B.C. “The first all-metal lock appeared between the years 870 and 900, and [is] attributed to the English craftsmen. They were simple bolts, made of iron with wards (obstructions) fitted around the keyholes to prevent tampering” (Schlage). Wards were first used by the Romans, and have been used on locks for over 1000 years. “New concepts for locking devices were developed in Europe in the 17th century. Early Bramah locks utilized a series of sliders in a circular pattern to provide exceptional security. Bramah is the oldest lock company in the world and is continuing to manufacture its famous mechanism 200 years later” (Schlage). Joseph Bramah established his lock company in London, England in 1784.
The 14th through the 17th century saw great craftsmanship with locks, and the security of the locks was a second thought to the ornate nature during the 14th and 15th centuries. “Craftsmen excelled in metal work and designed and produced locks for gates, doors, chests, and cupboards. A ‘Masterpiece’ lock was never used on a door. It was designed and produced as a one-of-a-kind by a journeyman locksmith, or iron monger as a ‘test’ to qualify him as a Master. Masterpiece locks were often displayed without covers to show the component parts of the mechanisms, their functions, the decorative designs of lockcases, and method of assembly” (Schlage). Security became extremely important during the 18th century when lock-picking became a problem. One of the most notable examples of a security-based lock was the Eureka lock (of padlock form). It was “a manipulation-proof combination lock with five tumblers. For a faithful bank vault used at one time in the U.S. Treasury Department. Patented in 1862 by Dodds, MacNeal, and Urban of Canton, Ohio. The operating dial is a combination of letters and numbers and affords 1,073,741,824 combinations; to run through them all without interruption would take 2,042 years, 324 days, and 1 hour” (Schlage).
Two notable figures in the European history of locks are Louis XVI of France and Catherine the Great of Russia. Louis XVI had a great interest in making his own locks and was taught by a local locksmith by the name of Gamin to do just that. “History says, poor Louis, he was as good a locksmith as he was a bad king” (Schlage). Catherine the Great did not make her own locks but she had a great interest in collecting them. “It is said that a famous Russian locksmith gained his freedom from banishment to Siberia my making a chain for Catherine. She was so impressed with his craftsmanship that she pardoned him. As the story goes, this incident is credited with the origin of a saying that ‘it takes 89 keys to unlock a prison’” (Schlage).
Locks are not just important pieces of door hardware in Europe, but also have a great importance in America. “In the mid 1700s, locks were few in the Colonies and most were copies of European mechanisms. With the founding of the Republic and the new prosperity, there was a growing demand for sturdy door locks, padlocks, and locks for safes and vaults, and so the American lock industry had its start. Each native craftsman had his own ideas about security, and between 1774 and 1920, American lockmakers patented some 3,000 varieties of lock devices” (Schlage). “Just how early the American lock industry took shape has not yet been determined, but indications are that at least by the early part of the 19th century it was pretty well established” (Streeter 1973: 9).
An index of patents from 1826 to 1859 revealed that many locks were changed ever so slightly again and again to increase security and performance. Latches were added, night bolts were improved, and some were even claiming to be unpickable. Obviously, the unpickable lock did not perform to satisfaction because there were numerous other patents attempting to improve the security of locks for many years after. When looking through the patent records there almost seems to be a one-ups-man-ship going on between individual manufacturers of locks. Perhaps this also had to do with procuring a better hold in the market. Either way, the long lists of patents poses a serious problem when trying to identify particular types of locks and their manufacturers. “The subject of locks used on early American buildings is complex, if their historical development were to be traced through the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. There were so many different types and so many varied uses, that such an attempt would fail to be more than a superficial review” (Streeter 1974: 41). Seeing that rim locks appear to have the widest use among American households during multiple centuries an examination of this particular form seems to be relevant.
English iron rim locks had the widest use of any form of lock among the American colonies during the 18th and 19th centuries. Rim locks began in England during the 17th century and were heavily influenced by Baroque architecture. They also had a French Huguenot influence. Willenhall (a town in Staffrodshire, England) became the lock-making center of Britain at this time, and it still remained so well into the 20th century. The town employed 148 locksmiths in 1770 with over 50 making iron rim locks. Although 18th century locks were not as ornate as those of the Middle Ages they had multiple components that made them historically noteworthy.
All rim locks were ward locks and were made from the 1720’s to the 1820’s of wrought iron. After the 1820’s cast iron was used. Wards in rim locks were obstructions that would get in the path of a key. A more complex ward system did not always indicate a more secure lock. Wards were generally in a semicircular form on the interior of the lock right next to the keyhole. Once the key entered the hole it was turned along the wards. If the key was made for the lock it would pass smoothly along the wards and unlock the door. If a key was not cut (a blank) or if the key was not cut properly to fit the lock it would stop on the wards and the door would not open. In 1818, having the wrong key put into a keyhole became a problem with the invention of the Detector lock by Jeremiah Chubb. Chubb’s invention caused a lock to jam if the wrong key attempted to open a door. This would not only prevent the door from opening but would indicate to the owner of the house that his lock had been tampered with. A jammed lock could be fixed by the owner of the house with two revolutions of the key as opposed to the usual single revolution.
Prior to Chubb’s invention in 1818, Robert Barron recognized a major problem with the rim lock’s security and decided to correct the problem within the ward system in 1778. “The warded lock’s weakness lay in the fact that once a key or pick had passed the wards, it had only to raise the tumbler past its notch in the bolt for the bolt to be shot. No matter if the key raised the tumbler too high, it still would pass” (Streeter 1974: 63). He improved the system by cutting two notches for the tumblers as opposed to the one that was used prior. He also “cut a slot for the tumbler in the bolt itself” (Streeter 1974: 63). The Barron and Chubb patents not only improved the security of the lock system but also created a standard for all other lever locks. It was not until Yale’s pin tumbler invention in 1848 that there were vast changes in the lock industry.
Other parts of the rim lock that were extremely important included the back plate, keepers, lock case, roses, latch bolt, and night bolt. Better quality rim locks came with night bolts. A night bolt would allow the owner of a house to lock the house from the inside using the night bolt. No key was needed to lock the door from the inside of the house. However, a key was needed to lock the house from the outside. A latch bolt has a curved appearance in contrast to a regular bolt (dead bolt). It was moved by a cam (a follower) in a horizontal motion against the vertical action of the spring latch. 18th and 19th century rim locks can be identified through the weight of their materials, finishing techniques, and the metal used on their spring latches. 18th century spring latches were made of iron and were of a simple form. The 19th century spring latch was made of steel and had two parts.
Lock cases changed quite a bit between the 18th and 19th centuries. The introduction of sheet iron during the 19th century is an excellent way to differentiate between the two centuries. The 18th century lock cases were made of hammered sheet metal, and the results can be seen when a case is opened. Decoration, as with many other pieces of door hardware, became less important, and the forged parts of the lock became gradually heavier. Stirrup knobs, brass knobs, oval knobs, round knobs, and ring handles were used during both centuries, but oval knobs generally date earlier than round knobs. Roses for knobs changed toward the end of the 18th century with the invention of die stamping. “The rose was a simple disk of thin cast brass, with a round hole in its center to fit the round iron shaft (which was squared only where it entered the lock and knobs) and attached to the door with brass pins, nails, or screws” (Streeter 1974: 53). It prevented wear to the door. Keepers (also referred to as box staples and lock staples) were originally hand forged. They were made of three pieces and can appear in brass or iron. All will have a riveted stud back plate. The back plate was the last piece of a rim lock to be assembled. It generally had one continuous (semicircular looking) ward attached to it. The back plate is an excellent place to identify whether or not a rim lock was hammered (dented) or of rolled sheet metal (more of a smooth surface).
Brass cased rim locks began being used in fine buildings during the 17th century. All internal parts of the lock were still made of iron with the exception of the night bolt that was made of brass. The iron rim drawback latch-lock came about during the late 18th century. Iron rim closet locks are also noted around this time. The closet lock could be mounted one of two ways. If the lock was mounted on the inside of the door no keeper was needed. It was simply stopped by the wooden frame of the door. If the closet lock was mounted on the outside of the door a keeper would be needed.
Another rim lock invention was the reversible rim lock (invented in 1842). The main purpose of this particular lock was be used on either the right or the left side of a door. This in turn reduced the cost of manufacturing. Cast iron cases and back plates were also used to reduce the cost of the lock. The first of the reversible rim locks had two keys holes, although only one was used. One keyhole was used if the lock was mounted on the left side of the door and the other keyhole was used if the lock was mounted on the right side of the door. These locks also contained two deadbolts and two tumblers. However, if a Y-shaped component was used in the lock only one deadbolt was required. “But judging from a few surviving examples, the lock was not a great success, perhaps because of the latch assembly” (Hammon 1993: 58). But with that said, the author made note that he has a 140-year-old reversible rim lock in his collection that still works. These locks were not popular with carpenters who had to position the lock in exactly the right position. Reversible locks did not have a box of wards. This made it difficult to pack and to ship. Yet another downfall of this lock was its key. This lock was most likely sold with one type of key. This meant that if you had a reversible lock and your neighbor also had a reversible lock you could open one another’s doors. This was a major security risk, and possibly a huge hindrance on the marketing of this particular lock. Manufacturers of reversible rim locks included Davenport, Mallory & Co. (1863) who manufactured reversible rim locks with one keyhole. Sherwood of Sandy Hill, NY received a patent for reversible rim locks on December 17, 1842. The Corbin Co. & Bradford Lock Works were also noted as making reversible rim locks.
In 1865, reversible rim locks and latches entered the market. The deadbolt was located on the bottom, the latch on the top, and the lock measured 3.25 inches deep by 4.25 inches high. Even with its problems, reversible rim locks with latch bolts were widely used in America until around 1915. In 1889, Russell & Erwin Manufacturing Co. sold reversible rim locks for a lower price than their competitors because they stamped steel parts with the exception of the latch bolt and cam.
The standard rim locks were not replaced by reversible rim locks but by mortise locks by 1918. They were easier to mount on a door as well as being cheaper. No American company produces reversible rim locks today. It is also extremely difficult to obtain a standard rim lock. For people living in historic districts this becomes a major issue when their old rim locks break and they are forced to replace the lock (for security reasons) with a more modern system. For older houses (sometimes in historic districts) it is interesting to locate an original door within the house. Through the use of a rough sketch over the door (like you would do over a tombstone) where hinges and lock systems are mounted you can identify the prior use of older door hardware. In some cases paint does not even need to be removed to result in a positive outcome. This technique can aid historians in reproducing original door hardware during a restoration process. If a house is no longer standing and archaeologists excavate door hardware from the site, the placement of that hardware can be extremely important. In the case of the burned Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia door hardware was found in the original locations of the doors. This find aided archaeologists and historians in reproducing the house nearly to its original form.
Many forms of door hardware are difficult to identify, especially if an archaeologist only comes across a small rusty piece of a lock or hinge. It seems as though one would have to spend years going though all of the material that is available on every form of door hardware in the historic record. But perhaps with more consolidated reference material and a greater understanding of the form and functions of door hardware, we as archaeologists can have a better comprehension of the physical material, and therefore have the ability for more acute analysis of door hardware.
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Wilson, H. Weber. Antique Hardware Price Guide. Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1999.
** Special thanks to Mr. Larry Bachman, owner of Triangle Safe & Lock for answering my many questions.