Unless you’re from another planet, you must be familiar with the literary (and cinematic) trope in which a detective peeks through the keyhole of a locked door only to spy a body lying on a blood-soaked carpet or slumped in a wing-backed chair.
Of course, if the key were still in the lock on the other side of the door, no one would be able to see a thing, but the murderer conveniently put the key in their pocket (evidence!) after locking the door behind them.
The door locks in contemporary dwellings no longer come equipped with keyholes, but if you have ever lived in a much older, pre-1950s home or apartment, you can’t have missed the ankh-shaped hole located under the doorknob.
Locks and their keys have been attempting to stymie thieves for at least 4,000 years. Clunky contraptions made primarily of wood have been found in Assyria and early Egypt, but it was not until the development of bronze and iron that what we recognize as warded locks and keys were made. Ancient Romans, in fact, refined the concept to such an extent that they would sometimes wear their keys as rings on their fingers.
A warded lock is constructed with one or more internal obstructions. Only a key that has been cut with corresponding spaces to allow the key, when turned, to avoid the wards and activate the locking bolt (actuator) is supposedly able to open the lock, but the design is easy to bypass. In fact, a home or commercial building fitted with warded locks on every door was often provided with a master key that could open every lock. Originally, only the master key, reduced to its “essentials”, was referred to as a “skeleton” key, but the term is now often used to refer to a generic design.
The onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century led to more innovative locks for securing personal property. These included locks with levers (Chubb) or pins (Yale), each of which required keys of differing designs. There were even locks requiring cylindrical keys.
Variations of all these locks – warded, lever, pin – are used today to secure everything from bicycles to sheds, start cars, and open your front door. And every lock ever made, came with a key.
Most people do not think of keys as being collectible, because what’s a key without its lock? But though a lock may be long consigned to an unknown rubbish pit, its key may have lived on in a jar or desk drawer, and many antique keys were not just practical, but ornate. Even relatively plain examples can represent ways of life long gone, or be associated with some thing or some place. There are collectors who buy keys with the logos of automobile manufacturers. There are collectors who concentrate on keys from office buildings or hotels. And there are many collectors who just like the look of an antique skeleton key.
Most antique and vintage keys sell for less than $10, but specimens with relatively rare attributes can force prices much higher. Recently, a brass, adjustable-length skeleton key patented on May, 28, 1860, sold at an online auction for $120 (14 bids); a collection of 43 antique folding skeleton keys fetched $227.50 (8 bids); and a brass St. Lawrence Hall (Montreal, Canada) hotel key and fob garnered a final bid of $432 (11 bids).
Would you like to find out more about this overlooked collectible? Check out the resources below, and
Keys: Their History and Collection, by Eric Monk – link
Locks and Keys Throughout the Ages, by Vincent J. M. Eras – link
The Padlock Collector, by Franklin M. Arnall – link
U.S. Mail Locks and Keys, by Marc Garcia – link
Antique and Vintage Keys (Collectors Weekly) – Concise history
Big Tree Keys Collection of Antique Keys and Locks (Big Tree Keys) – Wonderful site includes descriptions, photos, blog, and a great Resources section.
Crazy About Keys (Facebook Group) – “A group for key collectors”
How to Measure Skeleton Keys (Van Dyke’s Restorers) – Illustration of parts of a skeleton key
Lock Museum of America – Museum also hosts an Escape Room and an annual Lock Collectors Show