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Door Latches with Straight Lifts, Before 1800


Besides other door fastenings, namely box knob locks, wooden latches, brass latches, German lever latches, boxed or unboxed, knob latches, etc. not here described, many original doors in old houses still standing, show their original wrought-iron thumb-latches, made of malleable iron by blacksmiths in five hammered pieces, i.e.

the hand grasp, an lever with thumb press at one end penetrating the door to raise the bar; the bar thus lifted; the staple holding the bar against the door face; and the catch, a "figure 4" shaped, notched, iron piece, spiked into the lintel of the door, into which the bar falls.

These old latches are sometimes decorated, but commonly plain, sometimes home-made and sometimes probably imported. Some-times they show their thumb-lifts fixed on swivels (the swivel-lift latch); sometimes the thumb-lifts are notched into holes (the perforated cusp latch), and sometimes their latch-bars appear with, but generally without, a knob or curl or pinch grasp.

As yet no fixed types have been found to which dates may be ascribed beyond the following; namely, that the inner end of the lift, opposite the thumb-piece, commonly though not always appears straight before about 1800; after which it more and more often shows the familiar down curve under the bar, characteristic of modern cast-iron latches.

Doors latched with these straight-lift latches, some of which are very short, are sometimes hard to open, and sometimes, as if to remedy the difficulty, knobs or pulls appear on the bars of latches of early Colonial date. But these early knobbed-bars are rare and it seems all the more remarkable that the very helpful down-curve above mentioned should not have been more generally used be-for 1800; nevertheless curved latch-lifts have been heard of by me, and seen by Mr. Frank K. Swain, in old houses in England, and in Pennsylvania, dating from the earlier period in question, e.g., several at the Community House, Bethlehem, Pa., built about 1742, and several at the Letitia Penn House, Philadelphia, c. 1682 (doubtful).

Since the writing and first publication of this paper in Old Time New England, The Bulletin of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, for April, 1924, Mr. Albert H, Sonn has seen a curved lift-latch on a library door at Hadham, Conn., traced to an old mill built about 1740; one on a house at West Stockbridge, Mass., and one at Newfane, Vt., besides finding more recently a dozen or more in various parts of the eastern United States. Dr. A. Bertram Gilliland has also found several with scrolled, upturned lifts in the Stebbins House at Deerfield. Mass., built in 1772; one from the Pastor Williams House, Deerfield, built in 1770, and one at Washington's Head-quarters, Newburg, N. Y., built before 1800. If more should appear later, the present evidence shows that they will continue to occur 'as exceptions, and that in general a down turned latch-lift, if part of the original construction, will date a house after 1800.

Dating of Old Houses, Henry C. Mercer, SC.D., Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 1923.


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