“Fixed the Newel Post” is a well known line in Chevy Chase’s “Christmas Vacation”. This “plot device” was used in jest to reference the wobbly ball cap finial that George grabs in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Who can forget the majestic newels that adorn the red-carpeted staircase in “Gone With The Wind”. This staircase, which was patterned after the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia, is framed with large newel posts at the top and bottom, each adorned with magnificant lights. Have you ever given thought to the history of the newel post? It is quite intriguing and replete with long standing myths.
The primary purpose of the newel is structural although many posts are a major design element in a home. Grand staircases typically had two newel posts, larger and fancier than the other balusters of the staircase. Most newel posts are topped with a finial, the purpose of which serves to have something to grasp when ascending the staircase. Posts without a finial would often have a light or lights mounted on top, as seen on Scarlett’s grand staircase.
Newel posts were mostly hand carved prior to the mid to late 19th century. It was during this time that advances in technology allowed the posts to be machine made, making them more affordable for most home owners. Posts can be solid wood, made of any variety of wood species, or hollow. It is the hollow posts that lend itself to some interesting speculations.
Stories passed down through generations claim that the hollow posts were used as a secret compartment in which valuables were stored. Some stories say that the home builder would place a coin in the compartment upon completion of the home. Was this done for good luck or perhaps an attempt to ward off evil spirits? Others describe this chamber as a storage place for the house plans. A more common myth states that once the mortgage on a home was paid in full, a hole was drilled in the top of the post.
The deed was then rolled up and placed in the post or burned with the ashes interred in the hollow space. A small button, known as a “mortgage button” or “amity button”, typically carved of ivory, whale bone or mother of pearl, was inlaid in the center. This button signified that there was no lien on the property. Mortgages as we know them didn’t exist until the creation of the FHA in 1934. There is little evidence to suggest that mortgage papers were placed in the newel, but mortgage buttons do indeed exist to this day. Many homeowners, specifically in the New England area, will cap their newel post with a button to signify the retirement of their lien, keeping with this long standing tradition.
Secret compartments are intriguing and have always lent themselves to imaginative story telling. Perhaps these old hollow posts did house priceless treasures and important documents. If not, it is an interesting idea! Southern Accents has well over 100 antique newel posts in our showroom. Some have been fully restored to their original beauty, some need a little tender loving care. Most are single posts but we do have a few pairs and sets available. What hands have grasped the finial of these old posts throughout the years? What secrets do they hold? Only the posts themselves know. Secret compartment or not, the newel post can be a real conversation piece and major architectural element in your home. Stop by our showroom or visit our website to view our collection of Newel Posts.