The Barbells of Old South
Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. 55 no. 4, December 2002
The Barbells of Old South: The Extraordinary Early, Pressed-Glass Doorknobs of Old South Meeting House
by Franklin Pierce Hall
In the winter of 1999, Boston Councilman Jim Kelly was presented with a set of very large, extraordinary pressed-glass doorknobs by a South Boston constituent. Being five inches in diameter, the door-knobs were more than twice the size of regular glass doorknobs of the same period and style. The constituent told Councilman Kelly that he had found the door-knobs in the attic of his deceased father’s house (Figure 1). He claimed that they had been taken from Old South Meeting House during its 1911-1914 restoration, and he wanted them to be returned to Old South. Due to their unusual size and shape, these curious doorknobs have since on occasion been fondly referred to as the “Barbells of Old South.”
Shortly after, Susan Park, president of Boston Preservation Alliance, contacted me to request that I visit Old South to see these curious doorknobs. Meeting with Emily Curran, the executive director of Old South Meeting House, in June 1999, she asked me if I could shed any light on the mystery of these knobs, and whether I could identify their origin and substantiate the possibility of their past presence at Old South.
Documentation of historic hardware is not an easy task, especially in the case of early glass doorknobs. It is considered that before 1838 about 95 percent of the builders’ hardware used in America was still being imported, mostly from its former mother country, England. America’s domestic production of builders’ hardware started during the 1830s and 1840s in New England, and regretfully, little information exists on those early manufacturers and their products. Companies failed or were absorbed by another manufacturer, and the companies that did endure did not always keep archives of their activities, product designs, and early product catalogs. And, of course, there is the added problem of the 1836 fire at the Patent Office, which destroyed most of the patents on file for the years 1790–1836.
Brief History of Old SouthBuilt in 1729 as a Puritan meeting house, Old South Meeting House is one of Boston’s oldest and most significant architectural structures (Figure 2). Benjamin Franklin’s family was part of its congregation and had one of the four largest box pews on the ground floor facing the pulpit. (1) On 16 December 1773, a meeting at Old South, attended by more than five thousand colonists, led to the Boston Tea Party. Then during the American Revolution, the British eliminated the meeting house’s role as a public gathering place, desecrating the church by using it as a riding school.
In 1857, the meeting house underwent the first of several renovations during its 273-year existence; the congregation greatly altered Old South’s interior by redecorating it to agree with the contemporary Victorian design taste.
Fortunately, Old South survived the Great Fire of November 1872; the three-day blaze destroyed most of the downtown district of Boston, consuming sixty acres and 776 buildings. Whereas the church congregation had already decided before the fire to build a new church in the more fashionable Back Bay area, the last religious service at Old South Meeting House was held shortly after the fire for the soldiers called in to guard the burned-out downtown district from looters.
The congregation then leased Old South the following year to the U.S. government as a post office. Between 1873 and 1875, during its service as a post office, a number of major changes, which are regarded as more destructive than the damage done by the British during the Revolution, were made to the structure.
Then on 8 June 1876, the meeting house was put on the auction block and sold for $1,350, the value of its materials. In the face of this threat to the building, a group of concerned citizens held a mass rally on 14 June 1876 to save Old South, and the demolition was stopped. Among the prominent people, who contributed in saving Old South, were Mary Hemenway (a major Boston philanthropist who gave$200,000 to the fund-raising effort), Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Julia Ward Howe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and John Greenleaf Whittier.
After much controversy, in 1877, the newly incorporated Old South Association took ownership of the historic meeting house, arranging to purchase the building for $3,500 and the land for the incredible sum of $400,000.
Old South was the first building in New England saved for its historical significance, and the act of rescuing Old South was one of the earliest events in the movement for historic preservation, which started around this time when the nation was celebrating its centennial. On the national level, Old South Meeting House was only the fourth successful historical preservation effort up to this date. Unlike the previous three—Hasbrook House in Newburgh, New York; Hermitage, in Nashville, Tennessee; and Mount Vernon in Virginia; the saving of Old South was not dependent on the veneration of one particular historical figure, but instead on the building’s connection with significant events in American history.
At the close of the nineteenth century, the association worked to stabilize the structural deterioration of the meeting house and, in the spirit of the nation’s enthusiasm for “Colonial Revival,” they decided to restore the building to its colonial appearance. The association hired architects Bigelow & Wadsworth to conduct the major restoration. Original elements of the building that no longer existed were reproduced, using other Boston buildings of the same time period as guides.
Dating the Doorknobs of Old South
The Old South’s style of pressed-glass doorknobs with the tapered or “stepped back” brass sockets (combined shell and shank) were made from 1837 to 1915. The normal size was generally a two-and-one-quarter-inch diameter. Old South’s knobs are an unprecedented large five-inch diameter, and the overall length of knobs on the spindle is nine inches.
To arrive at an approximate date of these door-knobs or any other manufactured item of unclear origin, an analysis of how they were made and the comparison to later versions of the same product establish a window of probable manufacture date. The derivation of the word manufacture reflects its original meaning, “to make by hand.” The level of technology involved, that is, how close the methods of fabrication are to “made by hand” and the degree of machinery sophistication used gives reasonable clues to the product’s dating.
Secondly, clues can be derived from observations concerning the product’s development over time, where new technology and new material usage change the product’s design elements. The materials used are usually minimized or changed to reduce production time and cost. The manufacturer’s concern for increased production and sales can greatly change the identity of the product. Often, the product’s physical form be-comes smaller, more compact, and more efficient in design function. For example, the first hand-held calculator developed in the 1970s was approximately the size of a pocket paperback version of War & Peace, and priced at over a hundred dollars, it could only be purchased at specialized outlets, such as, electronics stores or in the electronics departments of large department stores. Today, hand-held calculators are the size of a credit card, have greater mathematical capability, but cost only a few dollars and are found at many large discount stores’ checkouts. Using this product development theory as the main parameter to determine the approximate age of OSMH’s doorknobs, their heavy construction and use materials gave the first hint to an early age.
The heavy brass casting and simple machining of the knob socket and knob rose, the use of mounting pins versus setscrews, and the simplicity of overall design for the doorknobs compared to later knobs were the major clues to their dating. Knowing that they were removed in the 1911-1914 restorations, and that the church had experienced two previous major renovations, narrowed the search between 1857 and 1877. Based on their unique size, it is logical to assume that they were an expensive investment for the church and that only one renovation implied such investment. It seems likely that neither the Old South Association, when they took custody of the church in 1877, nor the U.S. Postal Department, between 1873 and 1875, would have invested in such an expensive minor architectural detail. Only the congregation of the 1850s, which had a special interest in decorative details, could have justified the expense for these unique doorknobs. So, based on this logical progression, it was safe to suggest that the doorknobs date to the renovation of 1857.
Strong support to my hypothesis regarding this date came from Edward “Rhett” Butler of E.R. Butler & Company of New York City, whose company produces and sells high-quality crystal doorknobs based on the Enoch and George Washington Robinson’s Design Patent of 1837. (2) [See box “The first U.S. Patent issued for the attachment of metallic sockets to glass knobs”* below.] Butler’s company has a direct historical tie to Enoch Robinson, through its Boston-area hardware company, W.C. Vaughn Company, which produces the Robinson-style, pressed-glass knobs, known for many years as “Boston Glass Knobs” (the Robinson lineage is explained in more detail on page 140). On viewing my photo-graphs of OSMH’s knob, Butler believed that they were in fact Robinson knobs made between 1837 and 1850.
Therefore, as best as can be determined, these door-knobs were most likely installed in 1857, when the Old South’s Victorian congregation dramatically altered and redecorated the Meeting House’s interior. The congregation sought to update the older eighteenth-century interior with elements they believed to be modern and tasteful.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, church leaders, family reformers, feminists, architects, and house plan-book authors had created and aggressively presented to the public the image of the ideal Victorian family and its home. The Victorian ideal of the middle-class home was one of artistic expression and moral and social self-improvement. The concern for self-improvement and bettering one’s social status carried over to their communal home, the church. In An Architectural History of the Old South Meeting House (3) the authors stated that they believed a popular nineteenth-century plan book, A Book of Plans for Churches and Parsonages (4) influenced the changes made in 1857. This work advocated architectural styles and specific decorative design recommendations for updating church interiors to create “morally uplifting” environments. The plan book definitely supported the transfer of the Victorian middle-class ideal to their communal home by stating that “our churches should be as well furnished in these respects as our dwellings.”
The numerous interior changes made in 1857, such as a new plaster ceiling enhanced with a central medallion and panels with decorative moldings, the walls painted with warm, muted colors and illusionary trompe l’oeil treatments, the pews carpeted and cushioned, and a new pulpit, stressed the richness of design and artistic quality, which the Victorian middle-class congregation believed would modernize their communal home, and raise the moral and social status of the congregation.
As part of the 1857 renovations, at each of the three interior entrances to the church’s sanctuary, there probably were sets of heavy, thick Victorian-style double doors installed. The doors would have been equipped with mortise locks and these doorknobs. Mortise locks at this time were a relatively recent development for American buildings, only coming into common use during the 1840s, replacing the earlier surface-mounted “rim” locks. But, there is the remote possibility that these knobs might have been set up as center pulls, as was done in large European and American Victorian period mansions. In this case, a pair of these knobs would have been mounted in the center of each door, thus two pairs of doorknobs would have been installed at each of the three entrances, and they would not been used in conjunction with a lock. They would have acted simply as a handle to “pull” open the large doors. Further investigation, such as the examination of old photos and church records, is needed to confirm this second assumption. The congregation would have chosen pressed glass doorknobs because they were most modern and stylish piece of builders’ hardware at the time. But, more importantly, their exceptional large size surely gave an important first impression of luxury and style to people approaching the entrance of the sanctuary.
In the timeline of American manufacturing of builders’ hardware, these doorknobs date to its start-up period, 1820s–1850s. They are the product of two innovative developments: pressed-glass knob technology and the means of attaching glass doorknobs to their connecting rod, the spindle. Both developments are credited to Enoch Robinson (1801–1888) of Boston, who co-patented a mechanical process for pressing glass knobs in 1826, while working at the New England Glass Company in East Cambridge, Massachusetts. Robinson’s invention of a machine, called a bench press, for making pressed-glass objects (i.e., knobs) has been viewed as the greatest technological advance in glassmaking since the introduction of the blowpipe and glassblowing in ancient Roman times. It led to the mass production of a wide variety of glass knobs for furniture, doors, etc., at a modest cost. And, his 1837 patent for the attachment of the metallic socket to glass doorknobs, which he took out after establishing his own lock and knob business, was a radical development in how glass knobs were mounted to their spindles.
Unfortunately, to date there is little information readily available about Enoch Robinson’s business and the level of manufacturing he conducted. Whether Robinson actually made his own hardware or contracted out its production remains unclear. Furthermore, it is unknown if the Great Fire of Boston in November 1872 affected his business, or how long the business existed.
Old South’s doorknobs were most likely manufactured by New England Glass Company, using Robinson’s process of pressing glass and his 1837 socket design (Figure 4). Due to their extraordinary size, it is unlikely that they were a stock item. It is very probable that their design and fabrication were the results of collaboration between New England Glass and Robinson as a special order for Old South. Because there had been three entrances with double doors, there may have been three to six pairs of these amazing doorknobs made for Old South (depending on whether the knobs were mounted in the door latch or functioned as center pulls), but at the present time, only one pair has been found. The knobs may have been purchased from New England Glass’s show room at 140 Washington Street (at the bottom of School Street), only a few buildings away from Old South, or the vendor could have been Enoch Robinson himself, since his shop was located at 4 Washington Street, near the Old State House. (5) Thus, the business transaction for these amazing pressed-glass knobs would have been conducted within the neighborhood of Old South.
Physical Description of Old South’s Glass Doorknobs
The doorknobs of Old South are clear, pressed (moulded), “mushroom-shape” glass knobs, that is, having an oval profile with a short narrow waist/pedestal base. The glass knobs have small air bubbles that are commonly found in early pressed-glass, but this occurrence also might have been due to the demanding task of compacting the large mass of glass of these knobs. The height of doorknob is three inches overall (the glass knob above the shell is one-and-three-quarters inches and the height of the socket is one-and-one-quarter inches). At the base of the knob, inside the shell, there is silver-colored foil with crisscross chasing.
Before the knob was inserted into the socket, its base was ground and polished. Then, inside the metallic socket, there was placed a very thin disk of silver leaf or foil with crisscross chasing (Figure 5). This was done not only for a decorative purpose, but also as a work-saving device to render it unnecessary to turn out or polish smooth the interior of the socket. The purpose for the crisscross pattern is not clear, except that it may have been intended as a “play with light.” Though other designs, such as a raised flower pattern, were used, this was the most common design used by manufacturers of this style of pressed-glass doorknobs.
The cast and lathe-turned metallic sockets were then fitted on the glass knobs. To prevent the knob from becoming loose in the socket, molten tin or lead was forced through a hole drilled in the side of the socket filling the void between the knob and socket, thus securely fastening the two parts together.
The doorknobs’ roses or rosettes are simply cast and machined brass discs with a ribbed outside border having a three-inch diameter, twice the size of the normal knob rose. The roses are bearing plates for the doorknobs, which prevent wear on the surface of the door. Containing a groove to guide the knob shell and a hole for both the shank to sit into and to allow the spindle to pass into the lock, the rose ensures stable, guided turning of the doorknob. The Old South Meeting House doorknob roses do not have installation screw holes as the roses of the smaller, normal-size glass doorknobs do. Also, the roses of latter versions of this style knob are wafer-thin pressed (wrought) brass versus cast.
The mounting method of these doorknobs to their spindle (connecting rod) is the “Fixed and Adjustment Knob Concept” (Figure 6). The fixed knob is the knob attached to its spindle by a small pin before installation on the door, a process done by the manufacturer. This short pin, driven through a hole drilled through the knob’s shank and the spindle, was hidden by its rose when in place on the door. After determining the necessary spacing between the knobs, according to the thickness of the door, the spindle was drilled for the adjustment knob’s mounting pin. Then the adjustment knob was secured in place by the long mounting pin driven through a hole in the base of the socket and passing through the spindle. [See “Cross-Section View of the Robinson-Style Doorknob” below.] Spacing of Old South Meeting House’s doorknobs indicates that they were on a door having a one-and-three-quarter-inch thickness, which would have been an appropriate size for the sanctuary’s entrances.
Even though these doorknobs were approximately 145 years old, they were in exceptional shape when they were returned to Old South. They showed no effect of solarization, which is commonly found in early glass. Solarization, the changing of color in early glass, was due to the former use of manganese dioxide to make clear glass. When exposed to constant sunlight, the manganese dioxide reacted to ultraviolet light causing the glass to turn a purple or violet color. The silver foil inside the knobs had no discoloration from moisture, a very common occurrence in early glass doorknobs. The brass parts showed no built-up grime, over-splashed paint, or sign of polishing agents on their exterior surfaces. The only defect in this great door-knob set was a chip three-quarters of an inch in diameter in one of the knobs.
The doors on which these knobs were originally installed must have been destroyed on their removal. The adjustment knob’s drive pin did not show signs of ever being removed, whereas the set pin of the fixed knob had been removed, implying that the wood around the doorknobs had to be cut away to gain access the small set pin of the fixed knob, which was inaccessible due to being covered by its rose. The chip in one knob might have been the result of a blow from a tool or the unfortunate act of being dropped during the sets removal from the door.
The phenomenon of these very large, pressed-glass doorknobs is that they are a very unique creation in the history of American material culture, as they were probably specifically made for Old South.
Representing the 1857 renovation, a significant point in the architectural and cultural history of Old South Meeting House, these knobs also reflect the creativity of a local genius, and the superior craftsmanship of the important local company that made them during the early years of America’s Industrial Revolution.
These elegant and solidly constructed doorknobs, as historical artifacts, hold a significant place in the technological development of American industry. They are the impressive product of two significant innovations patented by one man, Enoch Robinson of Boston. First, his mechanical process for pressing molten glass was revolutionary in the glassware industry, and secondly, his method of attaching glass knobs to their spindle produced an extremely durable piece of builders’ hardware that was unparalleled at its time.
Robinson’s pressed-glass doorknobs set a standard of superb quality that other builders’ hardware companies soon copied, making only sight alterations to prevent accusations of patent infringement. This style of glass doorknobs was manufactured by a number of hardware companies until 1915, when lighter weight glass doorknobs with simplified sockets and threaded spindles gained popularity.
New England Glass Company of East Cambridge, for whom Robinson worked as a mechanist when he co-patented his pressed-glass process in 1826 with then general manager Henry Whitney, most likely produced glass knobs for Robinson’s business. Though it is not clearly documented, he must have maintained a close working relationship with this early and highly successful glass works. The phenomenon of Old South’s incredible doorknobs highly suggests this continued collaboration.
Today, the aforementioned E.R. Butler & Company of New York City enjoys direct lineage to Enoch Robinson’s Lock and Knob business, which he had established by the 1830s. The company offers a line of updated crystal doorknobs made by its Boston area company, W.C. Vaughan Company (incorporated 1902), which are based on the Enoch and George Washing-ton Robinson’s Design Patent of 1837. The W.C. Vaughan Company has for many years made these “Boston Glass Knobs,” using the traditional methods of Enoch Robinson and New England Glass. In the early twentieth century, Mr. Walter C. Vaughan brought out two small hardware manufacturers that had close ties to Robinson’s business. In 1918, Vaughan purchased the L.S. Hall Company, which made “Boston Glass Knobs” and other hardware items. Mr. L.S. Hall had worked for Enoch Robinson as a clerk and draftsman, and subsequently, acquired some of Robinson’s patterns and machines. Then in 1939, when the John Tien Company, which also made “Boston Glass Knobs” perhaps from Robinson’s patterns, failed, W. C. Vaughan purchased their entire inventory.7 The connection is even more intimate to Rhett Butler, who has long considered Enoch Robinson as his mentor and has spent years researching Robinson. Butler has had some success, but it is a difficult quest due to the lack of readily available information. Presently, his major objective is to find an Enoch Robinson catalog, to help shed light on the true nature of Robinson’s business.
Old South Meeting House is extremely fortunate to have had their extraordinary Robinson “Barbells” returned. For they represent an important event in its history and in the history of Boston’s role during the American Industrial Revolution. From the viewpoint of research into historic builders’ hardware, there is much to discover concerning the development and dating of glass knobs. This need definitely dictates further research into the New England Glass Company and more importantly, Enoch Robinson, whose legacy has not yet been fully explored and appreciated.
Cross-Section View of the Robinson-Style Doorknob
Socket. The entire metal base (cast and lathe-turned brass) of the doorknob, that is, the combination of the shell (B) and shank (D).
A: Glass Knob. The projecting round glass handle serving as a hand grip to turn and operate latch bolt of a door lock or latch.
B: Shell. The turned, brass base of the doorknob, containing the cup into which the glass knob is held.
C: Doorknob Rose or Rosette. The round (cast brass) bearing plate for the doorknob, which is usually attached to the surface of the door by screws, containing a groove to guide the knob socket and a hole for its shank. The rose ensures stable, guided turning of the doorknob and prevents wear on the surface of the door.
D: Shank. The projecting part at the bottom of the socket, which has a square hole to receive and attach to the spindle (the doorknob connecting rod that passes through the door lock to operate the latch bolt).
a: The hole in which the melted metal (tin or lead) was poured, which secured the knob in its socket.
b: The groove cut in the neck of the knob, to prevent the knob from turning in the socket, after being filled with the molten metal.
c: The hole for the set pin to fasten the doorknob to its spindle.
d: The square hole in the shank for mounting the doorknob to its spindle.
The original image for this retouched version courtesy of E.R. Butler & Co., New York, N.Y.
The first U.S. Patent Issued for the Attachment of Metallic Sockets to Glass Knobs*
In U.S. patent no. 434, dated 20 October 1837, issued to Enoch Robinson and his brother, George Washington Robinson, of Boston, the patentees stated that their “Method of Attaching Glass Knobs to Metallic Sockets,” was “a new and useful Improvement in Making Glass Door and other Knobs.” They claimed as their invention, “Only the combination and fastening of the metal socket and glass knob by means of melted metal introduced between them, and the adaptation of the forms of the knob and socket to effect that purpose in any manner similar in principle to the one—described.”
The Robinson patent was a major improvement in mounting glass knobs to doors or pieces of furniture. This unique socket design ensured the attachment of the glass knob, which would virtually never become loose, even with the most strenuous use. The artistic design of the socket and the method of securing the knob involved an extensive use of materials. The socket, being made of heavy cast brass and lathe-turned to an attractive tapered-form, was very solid and durable. The glass knob was a formidable handle produced by a ma-chine similar to the design in the pressed-glass process that Enoch Robinson had co-patented in 1826,6 while working as a mechanist at New England Glass Company of East Cambridge, Massachusetts. The knob was fastened in its socket by the use of a melted metal (i.e., tin or lead), which was injected through a hole drilled in the side of the socket.
The portion of the knob’s neck inserted into the metal socket, to the depth of about an inch, had the same diameter at its foot as at the opening of the socket. The interior of the socket, the cup, had a greater diameter at the bottom than at its opening, which was just wide enough to receive the neck of the knob. This created a cavity for a generous amount of melted metal to be injected to secure the knob. The hole, through which the molten metal was injected, averaged one-eighth to three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter. Located at the same height as this hole, the neck of the knob had been pre-cut with a groove, one-sixteenth to one-eighth of an inch in depth. When filled with the molten metal, the groove served to securely anchor the knob in the socket and to prevent it from turning. Both the knob and socket had to be heated to prevent the melted metal from cracking the knob [See “Cross-Section View of the Robinson-Style Doorknob” above].
To mount the doorknob to its spindle, a hole was drilled through the bottom of the socket for a set pin. The pin passed completely through one side of the socket, though the spindle, and came out the other side of the socket.
The Robinson patent held by the U. S. Patent Office no longer contains the original drawing of specifications, but fortunately E. R. Butler owns the model of the 1837 patent (Figure 7).
* U.S. patent no. 434, dated 20 October 1837, Enoch Robinson & G. W. Robinson. U.S. Patent Office Full-Text and Image Database. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Washington, D.C., http:/patft.uspto.gov.
1. Benjamin Franklin had been baptized within the congregation in 1706, but at the age of seventeen after a quarrel with his brother James in 1723, he ran away to Philadelphia.
2. E.R. Butler & Co., Purveyor of Fine Hardware, 75 Spring Street, New York, N.Y., www.erbutler.com.
3. Lynn Betlock, Emily Curran, Jane Schwerdtfeger and Ellen Weiner, “Old South,” An Architectural History of the Old South Meeting House (Boston: Old South Association in Boston, 1995).
4. Congregational Church of the United States, A Book of Plans for Churches and Parsonages (New York: Daniel Burgess and Co., 1853).
5. Lura Woodside Watkins, Cambridge Glass, 1818-1888 (Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1930).
6. Henry Whitney and Enoch Robinson “Account of a patent for Manufacturing Glass Knobs, &c,” Journal of the Franklin Institute (March 1828): 203-204.
7. Information obtained from notes dated 30 April 1965 by Elmer H. Pratt (president and treasurer in 1971),
W. C. Vaughan Company, 77 Washington Street North, Boston, Massachusetts, enclosed in a letter to Thomas Hennessy, Curator of the Lock Museum of America, Terryville, Connecticut, dated 20 September 1971.
Franklin Pierce Hall is an antique dealer specializing in architectural artifacts, through his business, “Arch-History.” An aspiring historian, he lives in Maine.