The Story Behind the Doorknob and its Many Styles

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Bill Primavera
Bill Primavera

By Bill Primavera

Except for those dastardly swinging doors which I never liked and think are one of the world’s most dangerous inventions, every door needs something to grab on to in order to be opened and closed.

It’s that round or oval device that you rarely think about, even though you wrap your hand around it at least 100 times a day.

After I read recently that there are about two million germs per square inch attached to the average doorknob and the experience of showing too many houses during flu season, I became very aware of every doorknob I touched. I really started to scrub my hands down many times a day.

Readers of this column know that I’m a movie buff and much of what I learned about home life started from make-believe home life in old movies. One of these was a Judy Garland film called “Presenting Lily Mars,” which was an adaptation of a Booth Tarkington novel by the same name. It was a silly enough storyline with a subplot that really galled me involving Garland’s character’s younger brother who had a strange hobby of collecting doorknobs that he would steal from people’s homes.

Where was the moral compass of that Midwestern family, I thought, in dismissing the criminal behavior of that rascal as something cute, especially since it involved stealing an essential item in providing access and egress around the house?

The doorknob is an ingenious little device actually. The traditional knob has a bolt or spindle running through it that sits just above a cylinder, to which the spindle is connected. Turning the knob pulls the cylinder in the direction of the turn. The end of the cylinder is a latch that protrudes into a space that is carved out of the door frame and prevents the door from being opened if the knob is not turned.

The mechanism is a little more complex than I’m describing it here, but I’ll leave further understanding to the technicians among us.

Interestingly, America didn’t produce doorknobs or any hardware at all until well after the American Revolution because of England’s stranglehold on manufacturing and restrictive trade practices. The colonies were permitted only to supply the motherland with the raw materials needed to produce the finished manufactured products that would be sold back, including door latches, doorknobs and all other hardware.

After the Revolution, America’s ingenuity came into play and its agrarian society was balanced with rising industrialization. The first major invention influencing the production of doorknobs in America was the invention of the glass pressing machine, patented in 1826. It permitted the first truly decorative mass-produced pressed glass doorknob made in America.

I love how history influences our use of materials. For instance, by Victorian times, the popularity of glass doorknobs was overtaken by the use of metals – iron, brass and bronze. But in 1917, with the outbreak of World War I, glass became wildly popular once more since all metals were allocated for the production of planes and other wartime materials. Glass knobs remained popular throughout World War II, but by the 1950s preference reverted back to metals.

Today, the choices are nearly limitless in the styles and shapes of knobs and levers, as well as finishes to suit every décor, such as satin nickel, aged bronze, bright brass, antique brass, bright chrome, brushed chrome, antique pewter, distressed nickel, matte black, oil-rubbed bronze and satin stainless steel.

And how’s this for a look into the future? The doorknob may disappear altogether. In Vancouver, all new construction since 2014 mandates only lever-style door handles be installed. While existing structures were grandfathered, the levers accommodate individuals with physical disabilities who might find doorknobs difficult to manipulate.

I am reminded of a personal story that relates to the fact that my wife Margaret’s native tongue is Lithuanian, though few people would detect any trace of an accent today. Within that ancient language are some quaint expressions that don’t translate very well into English, but Margaret still unconsciously uses some of them on occasion. For instance, if one were expecting to visit a friend but found no one home, the Lithuanian expression would be that you were able only to “kiss the doorknob.”

Considering that there are two million germs per square inch attached to the average doorknob, that is not the healthiest response to missing someone at home!

Bill Primavera, while a publicist and journalist, is also a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc. ( To engage the services of The Home Guru to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.


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