Schools & Rules: Reading Between the Lines of American Hardware History
Updated: Dec 24, 2022
Some hardware historians would have us think that when it came time to select doorknob designs, American builders and building owners of the 1890s and early 1900s really cared about academic accuracy and what is called “Schools” of historical ornament. This is like saying John D. Rockefeller spent more than 10 seconds making sure his next big deal matched precedents set by Greek or Roman oil merchants.
American interest in the Schools of Ornament actually emanated not from the scholastic interests of indigenous homeowners but from the economic needs of American hardware manufacturers. Beginning in the 1890s these companies were looking at a seriously declining market, with building styles steadily eliminating emphatic decoration such as fancy bronze doorknobs. Architecture was shifting back to traditional facades, symmetrical fenestration and a purposeful march towards fewer details, not more.
But large companies like Russell & Erwin, Corbin, Yale, and Sargent had enormous investments in the designing and manufacturing of fancy hardware. They needed to build continuing interest and demand for their products and so they adopted the oft-used strategy of playing upon Americans’ always sensitive nerve of stylistic insecurity: they re-defined their maligned “American” designs into much more desirable, and sellable, “Historical European” styles.
The proof of this marketing strategy is found not in what was offered up as the decorative “Schools of Consequence” but in what was branded with academic rejection. The acceptable Schools of Design promoted by the big hardware companies gave little credit to anyone but the Europeans while at the same time leaving out the one Monarch who was actually known & loved by everyone, who reigned the longest, and who actually had the greatest influence on American style. She, of course, was Queen Victoria.
But “Victorian style" was considered the demise of American building, so something had to be done to replace that vulgar taste with elite and seemingly sophisticated products. The result was the purposeful promotion of “Kingly” designs, the romanticized acknowledgement of American Colonial style, and the nervous recognition of the Modern styles that were threatening to incorporate no decorative hardware whatsoever.
One needs only look through the late 19th Century catalogs promoting Schools of Design to see that the publishers, i.e. the hardware manufacturers, were most interested in moving product, and they would comfortably mold history around their objectives. A few sample statements set this tone:
“…about the middle of the nineteenth century craftsmanship in all lines descended to a low ebb…” (this was starting times of these same firms, but maybe no one remembers) “…no period of which we have any written record was so hopelessly banal as this mid-Victorian desert of artistic achievement…” (MCCC was hopelessly banal?) “…the dominant note of the Elizabethan style was domesticity, a striving after modern home comforts…” (hmm…including indoor plumbing?) “…the Mission idea helped awaken…a greater respect for unadorned surfaces and…beautiful metalwork is a feature of Mission designing…” (please buy our products!) “… the earlier period of the Renaissance was marked by grace and spontaneity in decoration, and was executed with freedom and originality…” (Isn’t this just what happened in America about 1870?)
Along with the text, the illustrations of many of the late 19th Century catalogs portray a clichéd vision of history with Senatorial Romans, courtly Elizabethans, and dour Spanish monks implying that builders’ hardware would give the owner of a bungalow in Dubuque an instant pedigree to counteract the pervasive negativism of America’s elite architectural critics.
But few American homeowners gave a hoot that their doorknobs featured bell flowers, arabesques, or a twisted acanthus leaf, and fewer still had the slightest interest in studying what decorative element was associated with what School of Ornament. It was really the hardware companies that were trying desperately to remain relevant in a commercial environment that was growing more competitive by the month.
Long before the turn of the 20th Century architects and builders had figured out the economics of scale. Homes and offices continued to use dozens of door knobs, hinges, and sash locks, but the hardware companies were under great pressure to fill large purchase orders from the perspective of cost and at the expense of quality. Thus it didn’t matter if someone selected hardware from the School of Louis XVI or the School of the Italian Renaissance. It all had to be made faster and cheaper—and with a declining profit margin to boot.
We can empathize with folks who spent their lives working hard to build successful businesses, only to see it all unravel due to changes beyond anyone’s control. What happened to the American hardware industry also happened to companies in all areas of decorative building materials. (Just think of the thousands of stained glass companies that disappeared between 1890 and 1920).
America, the epitome of a "modern nation", has embraced the future and eschewed the past. This doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate history and our ancestral roots, but when it comes to "Style"we have a cultural psychosis about “imported things” being better than what we make at home. The Schools of decorative hardware are therefore really an attempt to assuage this need to be accepted by the Old World traditionalists while we built a whole New Century.
As an aside, American builders' hardware of the late 19th Century has provided manh beautiful things took at while also providing more than a few semi-scholarly insights —should anyone really care to engage in that droll exercise.