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Hardware 101 > A Brief History of Early Hardware

In it's earliest forms, most hardware was simple and home-made - usually of readily available materials such as wood or leather. Iron was far too expensive for the common serf and the time of a skilled smith was beyond most people's means. A patch of leather spanning between the stile and jamb and fastened with wooden pegs served to hinge a door or shutter. Hand-carved wooden hinges and pintles, slide bolts and lift-latches were whittled from a variety of woods. These originals obviously lacked durability and most have been lost to time, but some charming examples remain.

The earliest examples of iron hardware were sponsored by the nobility. Iron itself was expensive and a valued resource for any kingdom. Iron-pointed plows were much more efficient than wooden and farmers with iron sickles and hoes could produce far more food and fodder which translated into more wealth for the controlling lord. In times of war, forces equipped with iron swords and iron-tipped arrows had a huge advantage over others less well equipped. Again, an important asset to the lord of the lands in terms of defending or expanding his holdings.

Iron has value in its ability to be re-formed any number of times. In the hands of a skilled smith, farmers' tools could truly be beaten from plow shares to swords - and then back again - depending on the immediate needs of the kingdom. Key words above - "the hands of a skilled smith". The skill of the royal armourer was a reflection of the kingdom's ability to transfer it's wealth in iron to and from weapons of quality in a timely manner - so the skilled smith was considered a valuable asset to any state. I believe this relationship between the smith's skills and the kingdom's strength was a driving force in the earliest examples of door and window hardware. The hinges and hardware of surviving castles is very ornate and executed with superb skill. It seems this was intended not only as a display of the resident noble's wealth, but also as a statement of the skill of the state's ironworkers. Based on the castle's hardware, a visiting noble could quickly assess the quality of the iron and the ironworking skills of a community before even meeting his counterpart. Castle hardware made a statement not unlike the weapons arrayed on the walls and ceiling of the Governor's mansion in Williamsburg - a display of wealth and martial power intended to impress visiting ally and enemy alike.

So, the idea of elegant iron hardware was set by the wealthy of generations gone by and carried forward as the accepted norm. Even in the post-renaissance period, when industrial advances provided more iron and the emerging merchant/tradesman classes had money to purchase hardware for their homes and warehouses, the smiths produced only the elaborately fashioned and finished hardware as their masters had taught them. Examples of hardware excavated from Jamestown and Plymouth all were very ornate in design - typical of that being produced in England at the time.

In Colonial days all of the hardware was made in England and imported to the colonies. Period. That was the law, it was illegal for the colonials to produce manufactured goods. America sold iron and charcoal to the British who used those raw materials and their resident labor force to produce hardware which was then sold back to the captive market in the colonies. Virtually all of the early hardware in Philadelphia and New York, Annapolis and Alexandria, Chestertown and Key West, or any place else where British ships could berth was made in England - but laws have always been made to be broken. As you move inland, away from the ports and cities where British authority was centered, many locally made examples of early hardware can be found. Lovely examples of German, French, and Dutch hardware remain in our inland river valleys - reflections of the homelands of the early settlers. English hardware, however, was the overwhelming standard in colonial America and set the pattern for all that evolved.

By contemporary standards, change was almost non-existent as recently as two hundred years ago. The work of each of three generations of locksmiths in Lancaster County, PA can be noted by the single change that the son and grandson incorporated into the original pattern the grandfather brought to this country from Germany. People were just too busy trying to feed themselves and their families and survive in harsh times to think about changing what was proven to work. Change was considered dangerous (which it is) and disrespectful to the existing and preceding social condition.

Around 1750 things began to change. As colonial raw materials poured into the British Isles, "Factories" began to appear - often staffed by orphanages or those sentenced to debtor's and other prisons. Dozens and then hundreds of smiths (boys of six or seven years would hammer nails all day and as they grew were given larger pieces to forge) could be found under one roof hand-hammering iron goods which were loaded on waiting ships to be sold in the Empire's colonies around the world. The ironmongers were quick to recognize that cheaper outsold better and the labor-intensive embellishments of the early hardware only added to the cost of their product. H and HL hinges are a good example of this transition. The earlier hardware with it's chiseled and filed details fast gave way to less expensive, but equally functional hardware of similar but unadorned design. The success of this new market-driven approach paved the way for quick acceptance of the industrial changes that were to follow.

Shutter Hardware and the Industrial Revolution

Exterior shutters were vital elements on homes in the colonies. The expense of the shutters and their associated hardware was easily justified. There were no organized police forces, each man's home was truly his own castle to defend. With stout shutters securely locked from within, the windows of the home offered no easy access to marauding Indians or urban burglars. Which is why you often see raised panel shutters on the ground floor of early homes and louvered above. The raised panels were much more secure against access from ground level and the louvered upstairs shutters were often later additions to the home. Exterior shutters also proved a first barrier against the elements - winter winds and summer sun alike. In the cities shutters also provided privacy screens between the residents and the considerable pedestrian traffic only feet away. Shutters were in constant use, opened and closed daily.

Virtually all of the shutters in colonial times were hung with strap hinges - following the examples in Britain and on the continent. Strap hinges were strong and secure. The frames of windows were hewn from a single heavy piece of wood and offered plenty of "meat" into which a heavy pintle could be driven. The rails of the shutter were often six or eight inches high and provided plenty of room to position the strap hinge across the width of the shutter. The hinges were fastened to the shutters with rivets or nails driven through and clinched on the inside of the closed shutter. The nails and rivets were not only strong and secure, but they were also the cheapest fastener option. A relatively unskilled smith could produce them with only a hammer and small anvil and an open fire. Screws had to be forged, then the threads hand-cut and the head had to be slotted - usually with a sharp chisel blow. Locks of the period followed the form of the strap hinges. The rolled barrel was replaced by a pin of about ½" in diameter and twice the length of the thickness of the shutter mounted perpendicular to the face of the lock. The lock would be nailed or riveted on the lock rail of one shutter with the pin positioned about two inches beyond the edge of the shutter. The opposite shutter would be drilled through with a hole to accept the pin protruding from the lock. From the inside close the shutter with the hole, then close the shutter with the lock. The lock pin passes through the hole and you drop a simple nail-like key into the hole in the lock pin and the shutter is virtually impregnable from the exterior. Closed eighteenth century shutters are very handsome with their five matching strap elements. It's quite impressive to see an early city block with the windows shuttered and the doors locked - there's just no way to get in.

Tie-backs of the Colonial era were mostly of English origin and many were of the "Rattail" style. Variations are noted as different British manufacturers vied to produce a less expensive product. But the "change is bad" mindset seemed to keep the tie-backs all pretty much just variants on the rattail and one or two other patterns. Inland, where local smiths were producing hardware on their own, a wide range of patterns are noted.

A couple of things happened shortly after the American Revolution that would quickly change exterior shutter hardware

  • Machines were invented to make screws
  • Machines were invented to produced rolled iron in thin sheets

By about 1800 cheap screws were readily available. Cast iron technology had long been available - now machine made screws allowed such hardware to be economically mounted. A bunch of butt type hinges can be seen during this "Federal" Period (1800-1830) - but they quickly fell from favor, probably because they were subject to breakage.

A more obvious change in the shutter hardware was noted in shutter bolts. The common slide plate and keeper style of bolt started to appear. It was simpler to fabricate and operate than the earlier "strap style lock" and required a less skilled work force to produce. This bolt relied on both the new cheap fasteners and the readily available plate iron. (previously plate iron was made by stacking together thicker material which was hammered down thin, then folded and hammered again, then folded and hammered - like pastry ?). This bolt also relied on machines and "dies", and so indicated the acceleration of the Industrial Revolution - now change was not only accepted, but desirable. This form of shutter bolt has been made continually ever since.

Strap hinges continued to dominate in the market place, however, for hanging shutters. But here, too, changes were afoot. Drive pintles started to be replace by a similar pintles cut off and mounted on a piece of thin plate material and again fastened with the new screws. This is the pre-cursor of the "plate pintle" that's still very much around.

Changes in construction are noted in the same period. Instead of building the structure around the heavy wooden frame of the window, you would see structures built with openings into which "pre-fabricated" windows were installed. The earliest examples I've seen date from around 1810 and utilized a very nice variation on the strap hinge. Instead of mounting the pintle to the surface of the structure a new form was designed. This pintle was a flat plate of about two inches in height and notched to one half of its height and formed to a female barrel. Holes were punched in the side of the pintle and it was screwed directly to the side of the window before the window was installed on the structure. The strap hinges were modified to match the new pintles… the hinge was of the same width as the pintle and notched to one half of its height. A pin to mate with the female pintle was welded in the hinge. Examples of this type proved to be very durable and were in very regular and wide-spread use through the 1870's. If you look in any older town you can still see tons of examples of the female "cup" pintles still installed on the windows. (often when the shutters were removed - usually in this century - cast type pintles were hit with a hammer and broken off flush with the edge of the window. The shutters often found their way into the basements of the home to provide coal bins for newly-installed central heat - or, as on our old farm, were nailed up in the barn to partition off pig sties or calf pens).

Cast iron tie-backs became much more popular during the federal period - usually mounted on arms extending from the window sills. The "Federal Shell" was the dominant pattern in this period.

The Civil War Era and Beyond

The next major change in shutter hardware coincided with the Civil War era. By this time the industrial revolution was fully mature. Heavy presses and punches were in use in factories around the country and a maturing rail transportation system opened up the inland areas for the products of the factories. Iron was the norm up until that time - steel (a mixture of iron and carbon, and much stronger than iron alone) had been very expensive to produce. With the Bessemer blast furnace steel suddenly became less expensive and readily available. Hardware makers were quick to take advantage of this new material. They produce the first of the "butt" and "H" or "Parliament" style lift-off hinges. Quick and easy to produce and now strong enough to hold heavy shutters thanks to the steel from which they were made, they quickly found favor in the new construction of the period. Strap hinges were still very much in evidence, however, and the venerable slide bolt was still the only option in the hardware store.

Status quo for the next couple of decades. Then came the Victorian era with its cast opulence, trick, age-of-invention hardware. Neat stuff, but subject to breakage and it really didn't last much longer than the turn of the century.

About 1880 the first examples of "New York" style hardware appeared. Plate steel elements assembled by unskilled labor in sprawling factories. This hardware style evolved into the many imported forms seen today. It has been successful because it provided the ability to surface mount hinges (as straps do) and tie the wooden elements of the shutters together and also allowed for smaller and less expensive window and shutter elements. About this time the firs commercially produced "S" style tie-backs were seen - manufacture by Stanley Works in CT. Historically an "S" is a very difficult form to forge. Stanley forged the first simple styles for commercial consumption - it wasn't really until the 1930's that they started to stamp them. So the most common "old" tie back really isn't old, it's just highly visible due to the vast numbers installed in the last 50 or 60 years.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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