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6 Classic Doorknobs for Old Houses

Need doorknobs for your old house? Start your search with these time-tested basics. By the OHJ Editorial Staff

    Cut glass doorknobs for sale at a salvage store.

    Cut glass doorknobs for sale at a salvage store. (Photo: Courtesy of Architectural Salvage of Greensboro)

    When you’re trying to select doorknobs for your old house, the options—both antique and reproduction—can seem virtually endless. But spend a few afternoons browsing online or through your local salvage store, and you’ll probably notice that the same types of knobs tend to show up again and again. Like most items that have been subjected to the test of time, certain doorknob styles have risen above the rest to become definitive classics. If you’re restoring a house built between the mid-18th and the mid-20th century, you can’t go wrong with one of the knobs below.

    Antique brass knobs from Historic Houseparts

    Antique brass knobs from Historic Houseparts

    Brass

    While doors in the earliest American homes would have featured thumb latches instead of knobs, simple brass doorknobs began appearing in upscale homes in the 1700s. Though they never fell completely out of fashion, the popularity of brass doorknobs waned a bit in the Victorian era, when myriad other styles captured the attention of homeowners. With additional decoration (including molded and beaded rims), the style made a big comeback during the Colonial Revival. (Note: If you’re worried about bright, shiny brass knobs stealing the show, look for antique versions, which generally have a more mellow patina.)

    Duke porcelain knob from Rejuvenation

    Duke porcelain knob from Rejuvenation

    White Porcelain

    When American pottery companies began making white porcelain doorknobs based on imported European examples in the mid-1800s, the style took off and stayed in vogue through the first part of the 20th century. Porcelain knobs could be found in a variety of house styles, including Italianates, Greek Revivals, early Victorians, and bungalows. On many antique versions, you’ll notice a web of hairline cracks (called “crazing”) on the surface; crazing was a manufacturing side effect and is merely a patina, not damage. For the most accurate look, pair white porcelain knobs with black rim locks.

    Brown swirl porcelain knob from House of Antique Hardware

    Brown swirl porcelain knob from House of Antique Hardware

    Brown Mineral

    A cousin of the white porcelain knob, brown mineral knobs are prized for their swirly, almost marble-like surface, which was created by mixing two colors of clay. They’re commonly referred to as “Bennington knobs,” after the Vermont potteries that helped to popularize the trend. The popularity of brown mineral knobs was relatively short-lived (roughly from the mid-1800s to the turn of the century), and they were most favored by owners of Greek Revival homes.

    Adams faceted glass knob from Rejuvenation

    Adams faceted glass knob from Rejuvenation

    Cut Glass

    Another perennial favorite that spans styles and centuries, cut glass knobs transitioned from high-style homes to everyday ones in the early 19th century. They came in a variety of shapes and colors, but the faceted clear glass knob is undoubtedly the most enduring form of the style, widely available today in both antique and reproduction forms. Owners of Italianate houses were especially fond of cut glass knobs; early 20th-century homeowners also relied on them to dress up their Colonial Revivals, bungalows, and Foursquares.

    Antique wooden knobs from Historic Houseparts

    Antique wooden knobs from Historic Houseparts

    Wooden

    Not quite as popular as metal, glass, and porcelain knobs, wooden versions nevertheless enjoyed their own boom in the mid-19th century. Wooden knobs were primarily plain—either smooth and round, or a squared-off shape with a series of incised lines decorating the edge—but some intricately carved examples did exist. Because they’re relatively obscure, wooden knobs tend to be harder to find, particularly as reproductions—check salvage stores or eBay for antique versions, which will have a well-worn patina.

    Wrought bronze Lorraine door set from House of Antique Hardware

    Wrought bronze Lorraine door set from House of Antique Hardware

    Victorian Bronze

    As with most decorative items during the Victorian era, doorknobs got their turn to be embellished in every conceivable way. After the Civil War, new methods of casting bronze made it possible to produce increasingly elaborate patterns on both knobs and escutcheons—everything from flora and fauna to exotic Asian and Middle Eastern motifs. These highly decorative knobs were most often seen in late Victorian homes known for their over-the-top ornamentation, like Stick Style and Queen Annes; by the early 1900s, the tide had turned in favor of simpler designs. While a complete set of antique knobs in the same pattern can be difficult (though not impossible) to track down today, many companies offer authentic reproductions.

    Published in: Old-House Journal December/January 2013

    { 6 comments }

    Mark Philpott November 20, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    I’m just wondering, I live in an apartment building built in 1917, I think one would call it late Edwardian or early Arts and Crafts: possibly Renaissance Revival, the preferred San Francisco style after the earthquake, and around the time of the 1915 world’s fair. The place boasts cut-glass and brass door knobs, although the “glass” “sounds” like plastic. Anyway, I peeled the ceiling light fixture receptacle and it looked like brass. But it’s not tarnishing much. It’s barely tarnished at all in 7 months. I’m wondering if it’s gold. Any guesses? Thanks, Mark

    robert bruce May 28, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    Hi,

    my name is Robert Bruce and I recently put up my collection of antique doorknobs for auction. Just want you to know that the auction will be on June 22nd and you can view the items online starting June 15th. I consigned over 200 knobs and plates. Brass,copper,porcelain,glass. I hope you get to view them and hopefully be the winning bidder. The auction house is leonard auction in Addison Illinois. The web site is leonardauction.com.

    Thanks,

    Robert Bruce

    Banana July 17, 2014 at 7:51 am

    Wow, this is right on the money! My childhood home was a circa 1900 American Foursquare and has beautiful original brass mortise locks made of a with glass cut knobs. My husband’s grandmother’s house is a Grecian Revival and has brown mineral knobs. We since moved to Philly area and have lived in two different homes, both with flat wooden knobs. The first was a stone farmhouse about 1860s and our current is a 1890s stucco twin built for the mill workers of Manayunk, PA. My husband is a locksmith, so we love hardware. We are currently working on replacing all the hollow modern interior doors with solid wood antique doors we find (you’d be surprised how many people throw these out!) and putting original style antique rim locks on with wooden knobs. Our neighbor in the twin attached to us has all the original doors and hardware (and trim and original marble fireplace…ours has been stripped of all these details!), so we work off what her home has to replace ours, and she’s given us a few pieces of hardware she had hanging around in the basement. I’m off to boil paint off a lock we just got!

    Dalene September 24, 2014 at 9:21 pm

    Hi. I am looking for information on an old door knob I have. It is porcelain it does not turn. It has a small bar on the right side if the knob. You push the bar and the latch goes in release the bar and the latch comes out. I was told it is 1840s-1850s. Any info would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

    angela cooke March 17, 2015 at 8:37 am

    Is there a safe way to clean and restore antique porcelain doorknobs? They are not cracked or crackled, but have coffee colored discoloration spots under the glaze. I have tried non abrasive cleaners but nothing works to Whiten them. Thanks for any help you can provide.

    Avony January 25, 2016 at 1:35 am

    I am wondering if you could sell the door handles 80 mm long with a little ball on it as to open the door we have to press that little ball .I am also wondering what do I have to call that kind of handle in English



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