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Hardware in Context

Hand-worked, wrought-iron thumb latches and strap hinges recall the charm of a distant American past. But in what settings were these evocative pieces used, and where do they fit into homes today?
By Mary Ellen Polson

    A time-worn hasp and a slide bolt with an ornate backplate on a cupboard accent an early 19th-century Creole house in New Orleans.

    Before the invention of the cylinder lock, household security was a matter of trusting one’s neighbors—or pulling in the latch string. While many of the mechanisms that pinned doors together, made them operable, and held them fast against unwanted intruders in colonial times are still familiar, the many hardware innovations of the 19th century were yet to come. Even the lowly doorknob didn’t become widespread until after 1840.

    The standard means of securing a door before that date was the thumb latch. Most original latches have at least four parts: pull, thumb latch, latch bar, and catch. The thumb latch (a rounded, shallow bowl just the shape of the opposable digit) is attached to a handle with a curving tail that slips through a hole in the door. When the thumb latch is depressed, it lifts the latch bar. The thumb latch is kept in position on the outside of the door by the pull: a curved handle with flattened cusps in the shape of a bean, heart, arrowhead, or other motif at either end.

    On the inside of the door, the latch bar is held in place by a catch. Sometimes there is also a simple rounded piece of metal called a staple that helps keep the latch bar within a limited range of motion. Plain thumb latches work best when the door is flush with the surrounding frame, but there are also offset latches for doors not hung flush with the surrounding casing. The only way to lock a colonial thumb latch was with a bar pin, which slides into a hole in the door just above the latch bar.

    Contemporary entrance sets may not work quite the same way, but they can include authentic pulls and thumb latches with cusp detailing, combined with either a cylinder deadbolt or a mortise lock. (And while the thumb latch no longer lifts a latch bar, it can still open the door.) Many entry sets that include a cylinder deadbolt are designed for pre-bored doors. Mortise sets, which can be built to specifics that include door thickness, door swing, backset, and left or right “handing,” are most appropriate for existing or original doors.

    Staghorn rat-tail hinges are a fanciful yet authentic choice for kitchen cabinetry from Timeless Kitchen Design.

    Another latching device common in early America was the slide bolt, often beautifully crafted with tapering handles that ended in a ball shape. A tensioning “leaf” on the back of the bolt held it in place either horizontally or vertically. For Dutch doors, sextant-shaped quadrants held the two halves of the door in alignment, yet allowed for quick separation of the top half—an ingenious idea that still makes sense, especially if you have a barn on your property.

    Obviously, there was no such thing as a “pre-hung” door three centuries ago. Instead of the now ubiquitous precision–machined butt hinge, colonial doors were hung with hinges that visually demonstrated strength: the pin-style H and H-L hinges, and the horizontal strap hinge of medieval origin.

    Strap hinges usually taper toward the end, finishing with a flourish in the form of a ball-and-spear, bean, or heart motif cusp. In modern settings, strap hinges are usually decorative: they make a great statement on an entry door and have become increasingly popular for garage doors, where monumental sizes (up to 48” from some makers) give them great presence.

    A close-up view of a staghorn rat-tail hinge, from Fisher Forge.

    The colorfully named, self-descriptive rat-tail and butterfly hinges popular in early America also offer great decorative potential. Even though these functional fasteners were far from common—after all, colonial homes had precious few cabinets—such period hinges are still excellent choices for cabinetry today. The same goes for pulls based on latch styles that were used almost exclusively for doors: Suffolk, Norfolk, and the like.

    Brass hardware was reserved for fine bench-made furniture. Designs expressly followed the prevailing style: ornate Queen Anne bail pulls, beaded Sheraton knobs, bas relief Hepplewhite pulls with stylized centerpiece motifs (pineapple, ship’s anchor). The same designs are still available today for reproduction furniture. Look for pulls or drops that avoid the trademarks of machine-made hardware, such as obvious seams, a too-consistent “antiqued” finish, and a total lack of wear or patina. The best drops and pulls are direct copies of period examples made using the centuries-old lost-wax casting method.

    Teardrop-shaped door knockers in wrought iron have been made since colonial times; this one is from Acorn Manufacturing.

    Some of the most beautiful forms of early hardware are the many types of door knockers crafted in wrought iron and brass. Shapes in iron include rings (with or without escutcheons, or back plates), colonial “S” knockers, and teardrop shapes. Brass door knockers often feature a favorite colonial motif: eagle, pineapple, shell, a crest, or a leaping dolphin.

    Thanks to a succession of revivals ever since, many of these styles are still available to grace the door of your Colonial, whether it was built in 1760, 1920, or just a few years ago.

    Published in: Early Homes Spring/Summer 2010

    { 4 comments }

    Stone Stephens August 10, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    I am looking for a curved metal dental pull with a thumb latch

    Mary Ellen August 11, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Dear Stone:

    I’ve never heard of a metal dental pull, but you could try a couple of companies. The first is Kayne & Son Custom Forged Hardware (if you can describe it, they can make it). Contact info: (828/667-8868, customforgedhardware.com). The second is Historic Housefitters (800/247-4111, historichousefitters.com). They make and carry authentic replicas of early American hardware. Good luck to you!

    Julia Brown July 19, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    Mrs. Polson,

    How would I go about incorporating a thumb latch in a new exterior door (one that is pre-drilled for an entrance set with two holes, and is not solid wood)? I really want to use these old latches and knobs (and a seperate deadbolt).

    Thanks,
    Julie

    Jane June 17, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    I am looking for some brass bail pulls for a piece of furniture…
    at 4 1/4 inches from screw to screw, they are hard to find.
    Can you help?



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