Tag Archives: antique keys

Unlocking the History of Skeleton Keys

Not a day goes by at Southern Accents that someone doesn’t stop in and pick up a skeleton key… sometimes two, three or a whole handful! Many customers are looking to replace a lost key to open their old door. Others are looking for the small keys that will fit the lock on an old antique cabinet while others just seem to have a fascination with antique keys and are looking to add to their collection. And then there are the jewelry makers… the use of skeleton keys in hand crafted jewelry is currently a hot trend. Once again, tapping into our love of history, we did a little research on keys.

Southern Accents Architectural Antiques

The purpose of a skeleton key is obviously to open a lock. Skeleton keys, also known as pass keys, are designed to open numerous locks, most commonly a warded lock. While some believe that a skeleton key derived it’s name because of it’s shape and resemblance to a skull, the name actually comes from the fact that the key is stripped down like a skeleton to it’s most essential parts: a cylindrical shank with a single rectangular tooth. The shank can be solid or a barrel shank which resembles the barrel of a gun.

Southern Accents Architectural Antiques

This photo shows an example of a barrel shank and a solid shank skeleton key.

The first locks and keys were made of wood and can be traced back to Babylon and Egypt. The locks and keys were large, heavy, and impractical. Aside from the weight, the wood locks were susceptible to brut force attacks. The wood devices were eventually replaced when engineers from Ancient Rome improved the design and began using iron and bronze which provided a stronger, more reliable lock. The keys were smaller and the devices became more practical. Little changed in the design of the mechanism until the mid 1800’s when Linus Yale Sr. and Jr. introduced the modern flat keys. Skeleton keys, however, continued to be used in most houses until after WWII when the pin tumbler lock (or Yale lock) took over. You will find that the doors in many homes built in the 1940’s and earlier still have functioning mortise locks operated by skeleton keys.

Antique Lock and Key

This heavy iron lock from Germany and oversized skeleton key sits in one of the front windows of our showroom. The large 8.5″ key is shown next to a normal sized skeleton door key.

Our fascination with keys lie far beyond their practical use. Keys unlock more than just doors. There are many Biblical references to keys, including the passage in Revelation 1:18 where Jesus proclaims to hold the keys of death and Hades. You often hear someone refer to their true love as “holding the key to their heart.” Dignitaries are presented with the key to a city as a symbolic gesture of good will. The Gothic trefoil design found in many of the earliest keys is symbolic of the Holy Trinity. Whether a young boy proudly carrying an old skeleton key in his pocket or a woman sporting one around her neck, there seems to be something magical about keys… it is as if the revealing of some mystical treasure or deep dark secret awaits, that only the right key will unlock!


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