Then & Now: Details, details – the devil is always in the details

By STUART EISENBERG — Allow me to confess here and now that I collect antique doorknobs, mostly decorative ones from the Victorian era. There, I’ve stated it publicly, and there’s no turning back. One residual effect of my past career as a cabinetmaker and remodeling carpenter is that I am now and forevermore an avowed antique house-hardware nerd. Please let me know if there are any other folks similarly afflicted out there — it can get lonely having such an obscure passion. I just can’t help geeking out at the incredible patterns, craftsmanship and beauty of old ornamental hardware. The humble doorknob, for example, is ubiquitous and workaday, yet its form can reveal much about the era and circumstances surrounding a home’s construction and disposition over the years.  

(I also recently took up learning about and collecting mechanical doorbells. The kind you twist or pull to ring, and that leave you feeling the vibrations you just set into motion. They may not be as easy to hear as some of the more modern electric units, but they possess an incredible tactile quality of the sound that pressing a button could never rival. I could ring old door bells all day, but as you might call the cops on me, I’ll keep to my collection, despite all the tempting hardware in the Historic District that’s calling my name.)

It’s worthwhile to take stock of your own home to see if you have any interesting hardware. Your home’s hardware may tell you something that you didn’t know about the place where you spend most of your time. While the hardware in our own 1886 Victorian is quite ornate by today’s standards, it is also eclectic and not stylistically well-matched. This likely suggests a modest construction bill with an eye towards budget and availability or perhaps a bowdlerization of the hardware over time.

Most period hardware was designed to serve as a complement to a particular architectural style. For instance, hardware in Arts and Crafts bungalows reflects a contained, simplified design aesthetic compared to the more effusive ornamental values celebrated in hardware original to Victorian homes. Getting your surviving hardware components to match, however, can be another Sisyphean and expensive endeavor.  

There is an incredible variety of decorative hardware out there: doorknobs, hinges, leafs, pivots, knuckles, flanges, brackets, doorbell pulls, plates, window sash locks, sash lifts, strikes, stops, stays, cams, pulleys, bails, swages, escutcheons, rosettes, finials, shutter dogs, pintles, gudgeons, selvedge. Even the vocabulary of old hardware is lush, expressive, metaphoric and obscure enough, at times, to lead you to a dictionary, a reference guide or Google.  (BTW: knowing hardware terms also makes for better Scrabble play.)

Older doorknobs and other hardware came in all varieties of materials: aluminum, Bakelite, brass, bronze, cast iron, celluloid, copper, gutta percha (a kind of latex), mineralized clays, ormolu, pressed wood, stamped steel, wrought iron and more. Their finishes might be japanned, enameled, chased, embossed, engraved, etched, intaglioed or patinaed by use or by weather. Their metals may be wrought, forged, cast or stamped. Victorian era foundries employed the lost-wax casting technique to create amazing incised details in their decorative patterns, which vary just as much as coinage does.

For the most part, and despite the improvements in manufacturing technology, I find today’s house hardware bland and, intentionally or not, diminished in comparison. I cannot get enough of period hardware, nor my hunt for it out there in the marketplace — eBay, Community Forklift and construction dumpsters everywhere. And I’ve found the Hyattsville Preservation Association to be a good place to come together with folks of a similar bent.

Hyattsville has been a great place to indulge my condition. The housing stock here mostly retains a wonderful inventory of amazing period hardware, in situ. The period patterns and designs reflect the late 19th- and early 20th-century aesthetic and social history. One of the unspoken benefits of having been a candidate and city councilmember was having the opportunity to check out all the great house hardware of my neighbors. And you all thought I cared about the issues. Don’t mind me; I’m not prying, I’m just checking out your hinges.

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