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Door Knockers

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



THERE is no more decorative feature of the entrance door than the old-time door knocker, especially if in conjunction with it are used a latch and hinge. It possesses a dignity and charm that is most attractive, and when shown in brass, brightly burnished, it forms a most effective foil for the dark or polished surface of the wood.

Door knockers have been in use, save for short periods during the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, since their invention, early in the world's history, although they were most freely used during the Romanesque, the Gothic, and the Renaissance periods. For easy identification they may be divided into three classes, the first characterized by a ring, the second by a hammer, and the third by human figures and animals' heads. The first two types show a much larger surface of plate than the third, and the designs employed are often most elaborate.

Door knockers in use during the Medieval period were perhaps the most carefully designed, while those of the Renaissance period showed the most fanciful treatment. It must be remembered, when considering the ornamental qualities of both these types of knockers, and comparing them with latter-day productions, that they were made at a time when designers were practically unknown, artists being employed to draw patterns which were worked out by assistants under the supervision of master smiths, which method resulted in a greater diversity of treatment.

Iron was at first used in the construction of knockers, partly on account of its inexpensiveness, and the results secured from this seemingly ugly material were both artistic and beautiful. Later, brass came into favor for the purpose, and it has since remained the principal knocker material, as no better substitute has been found. Brightly polished, a brass knocker undeniably adds to the decorative attractiveness of any door.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, knockers were used on all classes of houses. These for the most part were very elaborate in design, showing a wonderful delicacy of workmanship, and they were in many instances larger than those found on modern colonial homes.

Except for the period during the seventeenth century, as above mentioned, door knockers remained in favor until the middle of the nineteenth century, when a wave of modernity, sweeping the length and breadth of the land, brought in its wake an overthrow of colonial ideas and furnishings. Modern doors, plain of surface, replaced the finely paneled old-time ones, and with their coming disappeared the knocker and the latch. Probably the principal cause of this was the demolition of many of the old landmarks, and the substitution of dwellings of an entirely different architectural type. This innovation for a second time con-signed the knocker to oblivion, and many there were who, not realizing its artistic value, cast it into the scrap heap. Others, with a veneration for heir-looms, packed the knockers away in old hair trunks under the eaves of the spacious attic, together with other antiques of varying character.

No doubt the greatest number were saved by the wise and far-sighted collector, who, realizing the artistic beauty of the knocker, felt that it would in time come to its own again. Quietly he purchased them and stored them away, awaiting the day of their revival, and his foresight was amply repaid when the modified colonial house came into vogue, demanding that the knocker should again be the doorway's chief feature. Many of those now shown are genuine antiques, while others are reproductions, but so carefully copied that only to one who has made a study of antiques is the difference discernible.

Old door knockers vary as to size according to the date of their construction. Many are of odd design, having been made to fit doors of unusual shapes, and the ornamentation is as varied as the shapes. The most elaborate knockers depict such ideas as Medusa's head, Garlands of Roses, and, in many cases, animals' heads, while the simple ones show oval or plain shapes, with border decorated with bead or fretwork.

The shape of the knocker is of great assistance in classification, as is the metal used. The most common type has the striker round or stirrup-shaped. This is either plain or ornamented with twisted forms, with wreathing or masks, and the plate is formed of a rosette or lion's head.

In the second type, the striker is hammer-shaped, the handle often showing a split and straplike formation, while the plate and knob are plain. This is an early type, as is shown from the fact that specimens still exist that are not unlike Byzantine and Saracenic forms. It is to this type that the exquisite iron-chiseled knockers of Henry II and Louis XIV belong.

The lyre or elongated loop drawn down to form the striker constitute the third style. Masks, snakes, dragons, and human figures belong to this class, and, on account of the elaborate workman-ship employed, these are often found in brass and bronze. This type shows ornamentation lavished on the striker, while the plate is very plain.

The greatest difference noted in all these classes is that in the third type the escutcheon or plate by which the knocker is fastened to the door is of little importance, while in the first two types it is the leading motive.

During the Gothic period, the design was diamond-shape, richly decorated with pierced work, and while this same motif was retained in the making of the Renaissance knocker, it was frequently varied by the double-headed or some similar style.

What is correct concerning the design of the Medieval knocker holds good in that of to-day. No door knocker ever designed was ugly, even at the time of the earliest manufacture, when so little was known concerning architectural construction. There is a fine individuality in the style of all knockers, and singularly enough one fails to find duplicates of even the most admirable specimens. Another fact that seems strange is that reproductions often sell for as much as genuine antiques. It would seem that the price of the old knocker would be high, on account of its historical value, and yet this type of knockers sells at a lower price than present-day specimens. Old brass examples can be purchased as low as two dollars and fifty cents, while large and elaborate ones bring only ten dollars. This is not on account of their true value not being known, but because there is, as yet, comparatively little demand for them ; and their sale at the best is limited, for where a person could use twenty candlesticks, two knockers would suffice for door ornamentation.

There is an important phase of the copied specimens that must be taken into consideration, and that is that they have no historic value. This fact has made reproductions of no appeal to either the collector or the antiquarian, unless there is some special interest in the model from which they have been copied.

Whether a knocker is a reproduction or a genuine antique can often be told by examining the plate and noting if it is forged to the ring or flat plate. If so, it is a fine piece of workmanship and a genuine antique ; otherwise, it is spurious.

The best place to purchase genuine old knockers is in the curio shops, where only such things are for sale. Even in this event, it is well to know the earmarks, for if one is anxious for a real antique, he should be posted on the characteristics, as a spurious specimen is apt to find its way even here.

The door knockers in general use today are the Georgian urn or vase, the thumb latch, and the eagle. Such designs as Medusa's head, and the head of Daphne with its wreath of laurel leaves are also sometimes found.

The lion with ring has always been more popular in England than in our country, and, indeed, during the Revolutionary War and for fifty years after, it was not even tolerated here, being superseded by the eagle, which came into vogue about 1775.

The garland knocker, which belongs to the early type, is still sometimes found today. One such specimen is shown on a modern colonial home at Wayland, Massachusetts. This originally graced the doorway of one of Salem's merchant prince's homes, but it was purchased by a dealer in antiques at the time of the decline in favor of the knocker, later finding its original resting place, from which it has only recently been removed.

Another rare and unusual knocker is shown on a house on Lynde Street, Salem, Massachusetts. This is of Mexican type, and has been on the house since its erection. It was painted over some years ago by an owner who cared little for its worth, and it was not until a comparatively short time ago that it was discovered to be a fine example of a rare type.

The horseshoe knocker, a specimen of the hammer class, is a prized relic of many old homes. Like all true colonial specimens, it is made of wrought iron, painfully hammered by hand upon the forge in the absence of machinery for working iron, as even nails had to be hammered out in those early times. This is one of the quaintest and most original knockers, and is after the pattern of the earliest designed. Subsequent specimens were more elaborate, colonial craftsmen bestowing upon them their greatest skill. Among the most ornate were the purely Greek or Georgian vases or urns, eagles in all possible and impossible positions, heads of Medusa, Ariadne, and other mythological ladies, and Italian Renaissance subjects, such as nymphs, mermaids, and dolphins, with ribbons, garlands, and streamers.

Not a few of these knockers have wonderfully interesting histories. Scenes have been enacted about them, which, could they be but known, would make thrilling tales. Take, for instance, the knocker on the Craigie House at Cambridge, Massachusetts. How many men of letters from all over the world have lifted the knocker to gain admittance to our late loved poet's home, and think what stories such visits could furnish !

On the Whittier homestead at Amesbury, Massachusetts, is still to be seen the knocker which was on the door during the poet's life. This is of eagle de-sign, probably chosen on account of its patriotic significance. Another interesting knocker formerly graced the house wherein the "Duchess" lived, on Turner Street, in Salem, many times lifted by Hawthorne, who was a frequent visitor to this dwelling, and who forever immortalized it in his famous romance, The House of Seven Gables. This is now replaced by another of different design.

Considered to be one of the oldest knockers in this section is that on the door of the May house at Newton, Massachusetts. Be that as it may, it is certainly unique. The plate shows a phoenix rising from the plain brass surface, while the knocker has for ornamentation a Medieval head. This knocker has attracted the attention of antiquarians throughout the country, who have given it much study in attempts to find out the period in which it was made.

Thumb latches are not so common as the hammer and ring class. Two of these specially unique show wonderful cutting. One is found on the front door of the Waters house on Washington Square, Salem, being brought from the John Crowninshield dwelling, while the other is seen on the side porch of this same residence, having been placed there at the time of the building's erection in 1795.

England is the seat of most of the old-time knockers, although they are still found in almost every part of the globe. Threading the narrow by-streets of London, one finds many historic specimens replaced by simple modern affairs. Some have be-come the prey of avaricious tourists, while others, because of their owners' little regard for their value, have been relegated to ash heaps and thrown away.

This is true of the knocker made famous by Dickens in the Christmas Carol. On the polished surface of this, Scrooge was said to have thought he saw reflected the face of Marley "like a bad lobster in a dark cellar." Later he spoke of it as follows : "I shall love it as long as I live. I scarcely ever looked at it before. What an honest expression it has in its face. It is a wonderful knocker."

Clasped hands holding a ring of laurel is the form of the knocker still seen on the door of the famous Dr. Johnson house, and, as one gazes at it, he can in fancy see David Garrick and Sir Joshua Reynolds ascending the steps, and if he pauses a moment longer he can no doubt even hear the metallic ring of the knocker, as it responds to the vigorous raps that they give.

The most beautiful knocker left in London is the one shown on the outer gate of the Duke of Devonshire's house at Piccadilly. The design here, as unique as it is beautiful, shows an angelic head with flowing hair.

Chapels and cathedrals in England have many examples of this type of door decoration, one being a knocker handle with pierced tracery seen on Stogumber Church in Somerset.

The history of door knockers is practically unwritten, and little is known concerning their make. The revival of antiques is responsible for their present popularity, and gives them an importance in house ornamentation little dreamed of a few years ago. To be sure, the coming of electric bells has precluded their necessity, but, on account of their ornamental value, it is doubtful if they ever become obsolete. The variety of design, the many artistic shapes to which they can be adapted, and, more than all, their decorative qualities, make them particularly valuable.



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