The history of the door handle

With the highly functional purpose of door handles, it’s extremely hard to imagine a world without them. In fact, door handles do have an unexpected and interesting history, from its primitive forms we may not actually classify as door handles, to the huge array and variation of styles we can choose between nowadays. Whether cramming some information for an upcoming pub quiz or simply researching and expanding your knowledge, this blog will take you down the historic path of door handles, so you are fully aware of The History of the Door Handle.  

Starting at the Beginning in Door Handle History

3000 BC

The history of the door handle dates all the way back to the Ancient Egyptians, where originally, there were no doors to even have door handles; animal hides or slabs of wood were used to hang over openings (what would be doorways). However, the Egyptians developed the basic pin tumbler lock, wholly out of wood. The keys for these locks could be up to two feet long and would act as the door handle to slide a locking bolt and open or close the door. Also, the development of the latch is thanks to Ancient Egyptians, where a latch string would be used on boxes to keep personal belongings safe, rather than whole properties (no matter how primitive they were). It goes without saying, it was only those who could afford either of these devices that benefitted from their luxury.  

500-1500 AD (Middle-Ages)

sliding bolt

Further into the history of the door handle, in the Middle-Ages, there was still no need for internal doors as most ‘houses’ consisted of one big room. The front door would be shut with heavy beams of oak for security at night but would be left open during the daytime for ventilation, while cooking and using fires.

The sliding bolt developed by Egyptians became a lot more popular during this period, we even see it features on the famous Westminster Abbey door, also functioning as its handle.

The latch design developed further, with blacksmiths designing a ring or strap as a handle to open a drop latch, connected by a split pin passing through the door. This meant the handles could now become more decorative and elaborate, but as they were predominantly made of metal at this time, fine tuned craftsmanship was not convenient.

1500s Onwards

suffolk latch

The history of the door handle excels rapidly from here, as individual rooms became a lot more popular. Initially, woven tapestries would cover doorways, then wood would hang from hand forged strap hinges, bolted into the stonework, creating a more solid internal door.

Eventually, these doors developed to have locks, but those poorer would still only be using latch designs with a strap of leather to lift and lower the bar. This meant it became more about showing wealth than providing security in their home.

As we pushed on into the 17th century, these drop handles attached to the latches became increasingly replaced with vertical handles which later developed into vertical handles with a latch mechanism (Suffolk Latches).

18th & 19th Century, Industrial Revolution, and the Official Documentation of the Door Handle

cast iron door knob

As a result of the Industrial revolution, the ever-so quickly developing history of the door handle paid off, with forged handles being replaced by cast and mass production hugely increasing. This drove up the popularity of door handles and drove down the cost, meaning more and more people were having them in their homes.

By early 19th, most of Europe would be manufacturing their own door handles locally, but in their own styles. Central Europe would have elaborate, wrought iron lever handles for their front doors, the French would have delicate cast brass versions and the English would either have simple round or oval knobs.

During this period in the history of the door handle, it was realised how they can function as good decorative pieces. High availability of metal and wood at this time meant there could be a focus on craft skills so that decorative, antique works could be made providing alternatives to those uniform, mass produced door handles. A variety of styles and designs started being produced, but manufacturing remained predominantly in Europe and America would import.

Then, in the late 19th Century, the invention of the door handle was officially documented. 16-year-old inventor, Osbourn Dorsey, received the first patent for a door knob and internal door-latching mechanism from the US. He produced this by thinking how to make travelling around the house and through doors easier in the dark.

20th Century and the Curved Tubular Design we know most well.

curved tubular handle

The history of the door handle far surpasses the 20th Century; however, the most common door handle we have today is probably the curved tubular design, first invented in 1927 by Wittgenstein. He famously designed this door handle which, since then, has become the prototype for all curved tubular handles nowadays.  

Through this period, wood and metal door handles became vast with WW1 and WW2, and the need for needed for weapon, ammunition, and aeroplane materials. Instead, china, ceramic, glass and porcelain were more relied upon as cheaper, readily available alternatives.  

21st Century

classic antique door handle

In today’s contemporary society, the history of the door handle has reached a point where both functionality and aesthetic can be combined, and in fact, can be applied to other furnishings as well as doors in the house, e.g., cupboards and drawers. Door handles can come in all shapes, styles, and sizes – but does anything beat the reliability and rustic charm of cast iron?

Also, with today’s advanced technology and science, additional considerations are considered in manufacturing, like infection control and accessibility. Throughout the global pandemic of Coronavirus, it has become more apparent than ever before how quickly germs can be transmitted, but door handles are not something that can simply not be used – unless we make every door automatic. It’s been found that brass, copper, and silver are poisonous to many germs, because of their antimicrobial properties, sometimes even killing germs within 8 minutes of contact.

In terms of accessibility, the evolution of the door handle has meant the handle has far overtaken the door knob because handles are far more accessible for everyone, young to old, as they do not require such a tight grip for access.

Perhaps one day we may live in a world without a functional need for door handles, based on the continual rise of those that are automatic, and motion censored, and their increasingly apparent benefits for hygiene and accessibility. Nonetheless, a classic, antique door handle, from your favourite period of door handle history, will always add a characteristic feel like no other.



We hope this taught you a thing or two about the history of the door handle and that you found it interesting. Please tag us in your Insta pic @Hammerandtongs of your antique door handle, we’d love to see!

You can browse our range of Cast Iron Door Handles today.

Thank you for reading, and we look forward to the next blog.
The Hammer & Tongs Team.