No matter what you collect, or how long you have been collecting, there are things out there you would never believe existed, yet the ultimate goal of colleting is
to find one (or more) of these fascinating objects. This is the treasure hunt dynamic that drives the antiques market and keeps all of us collectors energized and forever young.
Such is the story of the Turkey Dinner door knob, a design cast in bronze in the 1870’s by the Gilbert Lock Company (whose weird patent was actually fairly successful) for an anonymous customer who may have owned a restaurant, wanted to memorialize a monumental meal, or just loved to eat.
Doorknobs have always had an ubiquitous reputation as they are primarily utilitarian but are nonetheless something with which everyone has frequent, personal contact. And because doors are both barriers and entryways, door hardware evolved into a symbol of both purpose and personality—and in America, doorknobs became an art form.
This Greek Revival building could be a home, a school, a church, or the Town Hall.
A Little Architectural History
The great age of American builders’ hardware began in the pre-Civil war years as one manifestation of the industrial revolution sweeping across the Western world. In the United States, an historic confluence of money, manpower, and materials created a 40 year bonanza of supply and demand, which created open-ended opportunities for architects, home buyers, and all the artisans and craftsmen who designed and built the Gothic castles, Italianate villas, Second Empire estates, and crazily eclectic American Queen Anne (or Free Classic) buildings.
Decorative details were the order of the day, and almost every edifice featured fancy fretwork, sculpted terra cotta, and fabulous decorative windows. And last but not least, choice little pieces cast from brass, iron and bronze provided critical functionality such as hinges for doors, sash locks for window, levers for door bells, and of course, door knobs to operate latches and locks.
Architecturally, the Greek revival style was America’s building of choice from the 1820’s all the way to the 1860’s. These classically formed buildings are known for their austere decoration, but Greek symbolism, and especially the romance of ancient Greek military victories, resulted in Greek warriors showing up among the earliest figural, or representational, hardware designs.
These early, fancy doorknobs were initially cast from a lead alloys, which proved too soft, so next the knobs were heavily electroplated with copper. Manufacturing was advancing rapidly, however, so by the mid-1860s, high quality, reasonably priced solid bronze doorknobs became increasingly available and popular. By the mid-1870s, there were more than a dozen large American hardware companies providing massive amounts of “jewelry for the home” in response to the building boom that was sweeping across the nation.
A Strange Doorknob Design
Most of these companies produced similar products, but in that age of innovation and unlimited opportunity, many ideas that we might consider too fresh, or even outlandish, made it into production. Such was the product line of the Gilbert Lock Company.
A doorknob seems like such a simple thing, yet it is so critical in our ability to move freely between interior and exterior spaces. But there has always been a big problem with this simple function of turning, then pushing or pulling: how to make certain that the knob won’t fall off.
The quest for a solution has begat dozens of ideas, but the focus has primarily been to modify the metal rod or spindle that goes through the lock and activates the latch, and/or the screws that hold the knobs in place. Gilbert (and a couple of other people) went the other way, however, and decided to eliminate the spindle and shank screws and instead attach the knob solidly to the back plate which was screwed to the door. In Gilbert’s design, a patented lock/latch mechanism was activated by a little lever next to and beneath the doorknob.
In theory this is fine, but when someone has been blithely turning 100+ doorknobs in a dozen locations, what do they do when they are suddenly confronted with a doorknob that won’t turn and a door that won’t open? Loud cursing certainly comes to mind, but one can also imagine violent acts taking place as a pleasant train of thought is rudely interrupted and physical or property damage is incurred.
It seems that the late 19th Century just took such assaults on normality in stride, however, as Gilbert Lock stayed in business for many years and produced more than 2 dozen different door knob designs. If this was happening today we’d most likely have signs that announced a “Gilbert Zone” or “Experimental Doorknobs in Use”. But last 19th Century Americans understood that people taking risks and reaping profits was the natural evolution of life and commerce, and if well-meaning but dysfunctional products sometime resulted, then that was part of the cost of ultimately making things better for everyone.
The discovery of the Turkey Dinner doorknob is one of those moments in Collecting where years of searching and knowledge-building pay off big time in personal satisfaction, not just for recognizing a rare object but also for saving something important from a clueless world. And although this is a doorknob story, the same experience is shared by everyone seriously in search of the old, the way-too-cool, and the amazing, whether the object of desire be fine art or shoe laces.
And the other part of the story is while there are probably only two other people in the whole world who appreciate what you’ve found, and the uninitiated dismiss it all as worthless treasure, there is much hope in remembering the old, satisfied, and self-taught collector who said, “…that, my boy, is a very lucrative market…”