Have you ever considered what it would be like to live without the modern door handle? How would you keep your house safe when you left for work, or slept at night? It’s something we don’t think about enough - but there was a time when wrought iron latches were the only thing keeping people on the other side of your door.
While doors and locking mechanisms date back to Greek and Roman civilizations, we don’t quite know when the first door handle came into use in the United States. Documentation from the U.S Patent Office shows a submission for door closing device improvements by Osbourn Dorsey, an African American inventor in 1878, but is he directly responsible for the modern-day door handle?
What came before modern day door handles?
Rim locks: Surface Rim Locks are a lock that is fitted into the surface of a door with a matching box fitted into the door jam for the lock, and only operated with a key (no door handle). They date as far back as ancient Egypt and were typically made from brass. More commonly they became popular again in the colonial era and were made forged from wrought iron. Sadly, they were usually only found in the homes of wealthy families as they were fairly expensive and additionally not always practical for interior doors.
Door Latches: The common door latch, known as a Suffolk or Norfolk Latch dates as far back as the 13th century, made from Iron and found in Europe and China. Some of the earliest versions of a door latch were made from a wooden bar and a ‘latch string’ used to raise the bar from the other side of the door. Throughout history artisans who handmade door latches hammered the ends into a variety of different designs, from the prevalent arrow, heart, diamond and commonly seen spade. The designs were often matched on hinges creating sets.
Before the modern-day door handle, handles made from brass, porcelain or glass were attached to surface rim locks. Sadly, very little is actually known about Osbourn Dorsey, and to this day historians are still unsure if he was born into slavery, what his actual career was and much of anything about his life. What we do know is his patent was approved for his door closing device improvements within the year it was submitted and his designs called for an interior latch and lock controlled from the handle, ultimately keeping the door in place.