Schools & Rules: Reading Between the Lines of American Hardware
Some hardware historians would have us think that when it came time
to select doorknob designs, American builders and building owners
1890s 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
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
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 them, but maybe no one
“…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
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
all areas of decorative building materials. (Just think of the thousands of
stained glass companies that disappeared between 1890 and 1920).
America, unlike any nation before it, has always embraced the future and eschewed
the past. This doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate history and our ancestral
roots. It just means we continue to have a cultural psychosis about “imported
things” being better that 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,
hardware of the late 19th Century has provided lots of fun stuff to look at and
given us some semi-scholarly insights —should anyone really care to engage
in that droll exercise.