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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.