Lock History

 

 

 

 

A brief history of locks in America

In even the earliest buildings, locks were used to protect possessions.  A great many of them consisted of just a wooden bar mounted on iron brackets.  The only thing that has not changed over the centuries is that whatever you lock up, someone else will try to open. This is well illustrated by the epitaph on a New England headstone.

An ancient locksmith died of late, and did arrive at Heaven's gate; He stood without, and wouldn't knock, because he meant to pick that lock!

During the period of the 18th and 19th century many technical developments were made in the locking mechanisms that added to the security of common locking devices.  It was during this period that America changed form importing door hardware to manufacturing it and even exporting some.  New applications for cast iron, brass and clay completely changed the appearance of the locks that could be bought.  The development through the years of locking devices was carried out by hundreds of individuals all over the world.  To put America's locks at a reasonable price you must only realize that the Chinese had, in common use before the year 1000, a strong, small lock, operated by a relatively easy to carry key. In the years before dynamite was discovered in 1867, the key was everything. Without the key a thief had little hope of opening a locked strongbox or door.  For this reason the shape of a key as well as number of wards cut into it were varied to meet the needs of the material being protected.  Blacksmiths in the Colonies made many locks, as well as their other products. They could not keep up with the demand for locks as the country expanded even though some specialized in just lockmaking.  These men were known as Whitesmiths as they filed and polished their products, unlike the blacksmith who left the surface much as it came from forge.  Lockmaking required the skills common to the Blacksmith plus lathe turning, spring tempering, rivet and screw making, precise fitting and hole punching.  Sometimes in the same shop, brass casting was done for the knobs and escutcheons that were used.  The First American iron works was erected at Sagus, Mass in 1646.  Brass Foundries and Iron furnaces, as they were called, such as Hopewell, Isabella and Warwick Furnace all near our business in Chester County Pennsylvania produced a multitude of common and specialized products.  But like the Whitesmith, the demand was greater that they could meet.  It is for these reasons that is safe to assume that over 80% of the Iron locks and more that 90% of the Brass Locks used in this country before 1800 were imported.

Molded Edge locks produced in England were popular with people of means for their main doors through the late 1700's both here in America and in England.  Just as the Dutch, German, Swedish, English and French carpenters built houses of a type that they knew in their homeland, so did the locksmith create locks that were familiar to him.

The plate latch is based on an English pattern. There are many different latches designed by different countries, each one unusual in it's own right.  The Dutch elbow latch, the Moravian latch, the French mortised locks with lever handles of brass and many more.  Iron locks, thumb latches, bar latches, key locks, stock locks, Carpenter patent locks and other devices were used in great quantity.

On Carpenter locks, they were widely used in the East and South and they were all made in England.  The latching bar that lifted through a brass rimmed keeper is the patented design and the patent was issued in 1820.

In all there were about 20 companies producing these locks, under license, from Carpenter.  To confuse the historians that like to have clear cut dates on everything, according to the noted Pa. restoration architect, G. Edwim Brumbaugh, the house at Pottstown, PA known as Pottsgrove Mansion was fitted with Carpenter Locks when it was built in the 1750's.  It is strange to note that this lock as common as it is in this country, is, as far as we know, completely absent in England.  Could it be that they were all made for export?

If a date were required to be set for the ending of handcraftsmanship in locks, I would use 1840. This corresponds to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in this country, and is followed closely by mass production.  In 1831, Frederick T. Stanley established the first factory for the manufacture of, not the making of, locks in New Britain Conn.  Others had at that time, produced items such as locks, hinges, bells, utensils, nails, screws, and all the hundreds of things that are hard to find today.  Mr. Stanley's shop was set up only to make door locks. In the years to follow the Stanley name, Frederick or his cousins William and Henry, were associated with other now famous American lockmakers, including Seth North of North and Stanley; Henry Russel of Russel and Erwin and Philip Corbin of P&F Corbin. 

Between 1840 and 1900 patents were issued by the hundreds to these men and others for improvements of locking devices or decorative trim.  The leader in the decorative hardware field, known then as compression bronze, was Russell and Erwin. One of the most noticeable developments of the period was the widely used Mineral knob in White, Bennington brown and Black.  These knobs were patented by John Pepper in 1851.  Mr. Cornelius Erwin of Russell and Erwin helped him form "The Mineral Knob Company" to produce these knobs. These knobs were used on thousands of locks.

Corbin developed the unit lock, which was installed by cutting a notch in the edge of the door, sliding the unit it and fastening the trim on both sides. In 1833, J.A. Blake patented the grandfather on the tubular lock of today. This was installed by drilling only two holes into the door.

Walter R. Schlage of San Francisco was awarded 11 patents for the development of the tubular lock. Mr. Linus Yale, his son and employees added to the problems of would be thieves with the non-ending stream of improved bank locks that they made. 

Mr. Samuel Segal, former New York City policeman, is credited for the first jimmy proof locks, and has over 25 patents to prove that he didn't stop when he built the first one in 1916.


Copyright 2002 - Ball and Ball
Last modified: Sunday, 10-Nov-2002 11:54