The Evolution of Entry Hardware

Entry doors are a visitor’s introduction to your house. And as people open your door, the doorknob is akin to a handshake.

Cast hardware is heavier than wrought, and has a relatively flat back. (On wrought hardware, the stamped design will be evident on the back of the piece.) (Photo: Joel Sartore)

An entry set that matches the age and style of your house will provide a warm welcome.

But entry door hardware has to balance style with function. Function hinges on the type of lock, while style is determined by the trim: the knobs or levers, roses or plates. In America’s early years, entry door hardware was imported or copied from English examples. Locks were either wrought iron rim locks that fastened to the interior face of the door, or mortise locks that were set into the door’s edge. Both had flat, lever-style “tumblers” of varying design that had to be pushed out of the way with a bit key in order for the deadbolt to travel. The design of this locking mechanism changed very little through this country’s Colonial, Federal, Greek Revival, and Gothic periods.

As the industrial age ramped up after the U.S. Civil War, four Connecticut companies—P. & F. Corbin, Russell and Erwin Manufacturing Co., Sargent and Company, and Yale & Towne Manufacturing Co.—established themselves as leaders in the manufacture of building hardware. Their innovations and production methods would forever change how we open doors.

Reproduction hardware is a great way to get brand-new hardware that looks old. (Photo: Courtesy of Charleston Hardware)

First came improvements in lock design. As the century progressed and cities grew, security became an ever-increasing issue. In 1865, Linus Yale, Jr. patented the cylinder mortise lock, which would revolutionize the industry. It used a pin tumbler cylinder with a series of spring-loaded pins that had to be raised to an exact height by the notches on a flat key before it would turn to operate the deadbolt (see opposite). It was a system his father had worked on for years before, but it was Linus Yale, Jr.’s contribution to the manufacturing end that produced locks that were finely machined, mass produced, and difficult to override.

The other manufacturers integrated Yale’s cylinder lock into their own mortise lock designs, replacing the bit-key and creating locks that offered much better security. It became the standard that has survived up to the present day. Mortise entry locksets also had an interesting feature: stop buttons. These were 3/8″-diameter buttons or slide tabs located on the face of the lock. When the top button was pushed, the outside knob would not turn, which prevented anyone from getting in without a key. The inside knob still functioned, however, so people could get out of the house in an emergency. It was a handy feature—until you stepped outside to retrieve the paper in your bathrobe and the door shut behind you.

Original hardware is always the best choice, style-wise, but function may be an issue. (Photo: Joel Sartore)

Like so many other things in the late 19th century, door hardware became very ornate. Simple knobs and roses gave way to elaborate brass and bronze sets that left no surface undecorated. In that great age of style revivals that lasted through the early 20th century, hardware that was once purely functional now contributed to the style of the house. The 1932 P. & F. Corbin catalog listed 18 different schools of design, with multiple entry set designs available for each. On top of that, there were more than 25 standard finishes available. Options were limited only by budget and taste.

The best and most expensive sets were made of cast brass, bronze, or iron with crisp details accented by various finishes like “Sand Bronze, Oxidized and Relieved, Raised Ornament Polished.” Customers with tighter budgets could choose from similar sets made from stamped sheet metal. The details were not as fine, but the designs were available in nearly as many finishes.

Lock technology advanced once again in 1899 when P. & F. Corbin began producing what they called a “Unit Office Lock.” It was a complete door set in one unit, with the knobs fixed in escutcheon plates that were attached to the lock body. What was revolutionary was the fact that the pin-tumbler core was mounted in the center of the knob. Installing the lock was simple and fast—according to company literature, “By actual tests in office buildings, the average time required for putting a set on a door is 10 minutes.” While Corbin’s unit lock was very popular, it also spurred others to adopt the “key in the knob” concept.

Restored sets form a reputable dealer may be the best for style and function, but watch out for sticker shock.

The end of World War II meant the end of the Depression, and the subsequent return of American soldiers created an enormous building boom. This new age was focused on the future, with old, ornate styles and complicated ways of doing things replaced by items that were sleek, fast, and shiny. Two similar systems came to dominate locks: Schlage’s cylinder locks, invented in 1928, and the Kwikset system, invented in 1946. Both used the concept of a locking latch bolt. However, security was light, and anyone with a thin tool—like a credit card—could easily push back the latch bolt and open the door, so extra security had to be added with an additional mortise deadlock. This, ironically, defeated the whole idea of a quick-to-install system.

These products, however, met the needs of the postwar building boom. They were clean-looking and easy to install by way of a 2″ hole drilled in the door. New doors could even be pre-drilled at the factory. Unfortunately, this has become the default practice today, and if you plan to use an older mortise or box lock, you must specify “undrilled” when ordering custom doors. If not, that 2″ hole is hard to adequately plug and nearly impossible to cover with old hardware.

If you’re looking for a new entry set, be sure to choose carefully, spend wisely, and get a set your house deserves. After all, you never know who might meet it someday.

Tags: Bill Rigby door hardware doors OHJ February 2014 Old-House Journal

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