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Door Knob

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Door Knob

Designer: Henry E. Russell, of Russell & Erwin Manufacturing Company (active New Britain, Connecticut, 1839-1902)

Date: 1879
Medium: Brass
Overall: 2 1/2 x 2 1/4in. (6.4 x 5.7cm)
Markings: Underside of doorknob: "RUSSELL & ERWIN MFG. CO. NEW BRITAIN CONN. U.S.A." on the cylinder: "PAT. JUNE 3.79."
Credit Line: Gift of Nina and Jack Gray
Object number: 2006.4
Text Entries

Rooms with ornamental wall and ceiling treatments in the Aesthetic style relied on the decorative arts to accent the smaller details of the interior, including doorknobs, handles, locksets, hinges, and window hardware. A number of American companies that manufactured builders’ hardware included lines of “artistic house fittings.” The New York Times proclaimed in 1887, “The hardware of today is nothing if not decorative. Keeping pace with all other kinds of housework, it is made to harmonize with the finish and furnishings of a room in which it is used. . . . The attractiveness of hardware, coupled with the really beautiful designs, although cast . . . render the metal work now in vogue gems of artistic merit and beauty.”112 Aesthetic brass hardware was made in harmonious sets: doorknobs, for example, had compatible hinges, rosettes, and doorplates.


The single most important development for artistic hardware was compression casting, which John Joseph Charles Smith (1835–1914) invented, patented, and steadily improved during the 1860s.113 Smith owned Metallic Compression Casting of Boston, which Russell & Erwin of New Britain, Connecticut, acquired in 1870.114 Russell & Erwin, established in 1839, led the way in the design and production of artistic hardware.115


During the 1870s several hardware firms produced art brass hardware. The four largest makers, all located in Connecticut, were Russell & Erwin; P. & F. Corbin, also of New Britain; Sargent & Company of New Haven; and Yale & Towne of Stamford. Among the smaller firms, the Nashua Lock Company of Nashua, New Hampshire, and Mallory Wheeler & Company of New Haven, Connecticut, were also notable for their Aesthetic hardware. All of these companies had been in business manufacturing locks and builders’ hardware, and most of them filed numerous technical and design patents heralding the advances of the industry.116


The hardware designers, some of whose names are known through design patents, drew upon a rich array of sources. The Anglo-Japanesque style was probably the most influential, and in 1879 Henry Russell of Russell & Erwin took out design patent D11,191, a doorknob with the image of a geisha holding a parasol (2006.4). In the specification Russell stated, “It possesses the characteristic feature of being in the Japanese style of ornament, which style, so far as I know or believe, I am the first to apply to the ornamentation of builders’ hardware.”117 The figure of the woman is almost three-dimensional and demonstrates the technological advances that the Metallic Compression Casting Company facilitated. Another Russell & Erwin designer, Rodolphe Christesen, patented designs for a number of doorknobs, pulls, hinges, letter plates, handles, and a stand for fire irons, all in the Japanese taste  118 These objects featured birds, asymmetric compositions, Asian flowers and leaves, and a variety of other Japanesque ornament. While Russell & Erwin introduced these progressive designs, other makers quickly adapted designs of their own. Sargent & Company made a doorknob and matching escutcheon in a pattern called “Ekado,” which features an asymmetric trellis and flowers on a patterned ground.  The Nashua Lock Company created door handles that combine a variety of sunflower motifs with bands of diagonal ornament, a bird with outstretched wings, and an owl. The design has a close affinity with the English Aesthetic, particularly evident in the sunflowers. The success of the piece depends on the balance and lively composition of these finely cast elements. Another Nashua design for a doorknob reveals a distilled Aesthetic composition composed of a fern and a sunflower, each set within a half-circle frame. The abstraction of natural forms was pushed even further in geometrically conceived doorknob patterns. Russell & Erwin moved in this direction with designs such as the so-called compassrose doorknob, which combines a central abstract sunflower motif surrounded by pierced Gothic arches, all of which are rendered with geometric precision.


The array of brass hardware was available in a number of different finishes in order further to accommodate individual tastes. In addition, the publication of catalogues by most of the firms in the 1880s made the hardware widely available. Indeed, the hardware companies had a veryactive export business.119 Artistic hardware probably had a longer period of popularity than other forms of art brass due to the extensive distribution system.


112. Richard Spenlow, “Decorating and Furnishing,” New York Times, Sept. 25, 1887, 5.


113. Smith filed more than sixty patents—including 70,038; 85,340; 90,257; and 90,318—for casting apparatus, as well as molds and patterns.


114. Maud L. Eastwood, Antique Builders Hardware: Knobs and Accessories, Research Manual & Collector’s Guide (Beaverton, Ore.: Lithex Printing, 1982), 47.


115. The R. G. Dun ledgers regularly recorded the prosperity of the company, which had warehouses in New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. See Connecticut Vol. 21, 734 (Nov. 12, 1870, Jan. 1, 1871, Feb. 27, 1872); Connecticut Vol. 22, 931 (Mar. 22, 1877 and Feb. 14, 1878); Connecticut Vol. 22, 1135 (Sept. 1, 1883, and Aug. 2, 1884), R. G. Dun & Co. Collection.


116. Russell & Erwin was founded in 1839 by H. E. Russell, Cornelius Erwin, and Frederick T. Stanley. Philip and Frank Corbin started P. & F. Corbin in 1849. Russell & Erwin and P. & F. Corbin merged into the American Hardware Corp. in 1902. The papers of both of these companies are in the collection of the library at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. I thank Jean Kelly for her assistance with researching this material. Sargent & Co. was incorporated in 1864. Yale Lock Manufacturing Co. was founded in 1868 and became Yale & Towne the following year after the death of founder Linus Yale Jr. The Nashua Lock Company was in business from 1834 to 1889, and the Mallory Wheeler Co., was active from 1834 to 1913.


117. United States Patent Office, Specification of Letters Patent, May 13, 1879, D11,191. The almost identical image appears in brass buttons, although it is not known when or by whom the buttons were made.


118. United States Patent Office, Specification of Letters Patents, June 26, 1879, D11,226; June 3, 1879, D11,227; June 3, 1879, D11,229; June 10, 1879, D11,240; June 24, 1879, D11,257; Aug. 5, 1879, D11,322; Jan. 13, 1880, D11,606.


119. Eastwood, Antique Builders Hardware, 121.