Door hardware, like other architectural details, can often help to guestimate the age of the house when its history is unknown. However, this method is only reliable when it is known with certainty that the hardware in question is original to the house. Hardware, like other details, is often subject to replacement or updates. And sometimes those replacements can be many decades newer or older than the house itself!

The following is not meant to be a comprehensive history of door hardware, but rather a general guide to some of the more common types found in North America. There are lots of gaps in the following evolution; the variety of door hardware out there is absolutely mind-numbing. For the sake of brevity, we’ll skip hinges and more obscure door hardware.

The earliest houses in the colonies used simple latches made of wood. A string, or piece of leather, passed through a hole in the door to allow operation from the other side. The string could be pulled in at night to “lock” the door. Image source: Old American Houses 1700 – 1850 by Henry Lionel Williams and Ottalie K. Williams.

Later, the same basic design was wrought of iron, but an exterior handle with thumb latch took the place of a string to lift the bar out of the catch. This hardware was often painted over even when new; it was not always meant to stand out in sharp contrast to the painted woodwork. Image source: Old American Houses 1700 – 1850 by Henry Lionel Williams and Ottalie K. Williams.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the well-to-do might have imported locks from Europe, but most people had much simpler hardware. Blacksmiths began to copy imported mechanical designs to the best of their ability. While a type of mortise lock was available, very few could afford them. Surface-mounted hardware was to remain the norm for many decades.

By the end of the eighteenth century iron latches such as this “Suffolk latch” were in common use — and remained popular into the early nineteenth century. The hammered ends (cusps) were shaped in ways which varied regionally. These spade- or heart-shaped cusps are typical of Pennsylvania. Image source: via

Though still in use into the 1830’s when this house was built, such door hardware was falling out of fashion. Image source: via

This is the latch as seen from the other side on another door in the same house as above. Image source: via

Though no longer fashionable for interiors, the noble Suffolk latch never truly became obsolete and new versions which are not much different from the originals (though made of stamped steel rather than hand-forged iron) are commonly used today as exterior gate hardware. Image source:

Rim locks such as this one at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest were available to the wealthy in the early nineteenth century, but most houses had far simpler hardware. This is a reproduction of the c. 1815 original. Image source:

Less refined options were available. This “stop lock”, an early type of rim lock, combines manufactured metal parts mortised into a block of wood and is similar to many early European examples. I found this at a Pennsylvania flea market and would not be surprised to find that it had been made in the area. I am unsure of its age, but guess it to be made somewhere around 1820 to 1830. If anyone knows more, please let me know in a comment!

The back of the stop lock would face the door upon which it was mounted and not be visible. A screw hole in each corner of the wood block allows for attachment to a door.

This “elbow lock” probably dates to the 1830’s and could be operated by pressing on the lever which was placed on the interior side of the door. A similar outside lever with a square spindle would fit into the center hole to allow daytime operation, but was removable at night to lock the door. Because they were removable, many of these levers were lost (which is why I don’t have the one that belonged to this lock). A slide bolt at the bottom allows additional security.

The “No. 60” wrought iron rim lock patented by James Carpenter and John Young in England in 1830. This example was probably made about a decade later. Their locks were quite popular and can still be found in many American homes of the period.

The screws are also hand-made. The keyhole escutcheon still retains three of its original nails.

This transitional door lock has the shape of a rim lock but its guts are exposed (with numerous coats of paint slopped over everything). I salvaged this from a house in Baltimore, Maryland, which had been built around 1840. It was being gutted and turned into apartments; the owner had no idea what he was destroying (and couldn’t have cared less). The lock was used on a bedroom door. Sorry about the shrink-wrap, but I was too lazy to take it off and re-wrap it for the photo… it’s been this way for a few years and I don’t want to risk losing any parts!

This larger entry lock is from the front door of the same house in Baltimore.

A “mercury glass” doorknob, c. 1850. Though probably designed for use with a mortise lock, I don’t know for sure. Mortise locks were becoming more commonplace in the mid-nineteenth century for those who could afford them. The look of door hardware was beginning to change…

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