The History Of The Key

An issue of size

It was the ancient Greeks who invented a system that incorporated a lockable bolt on the inside of the door. There was a hole drilled some way above the bolt that accommodated a long, curved wooden key that looped around and engaged the bolt. When the key was turned, it activated the bolt in the same way that modern locks work today, except the Greek keys were so enormous that wealthy owners employed slaves especially to carry them.

Roman refinement

Although the ancient Greeks invented the keyhole, it was the Romans who refined it. Early Roman keys display both elegance and technical finesse, mostly because they were a status symbol for anyone wealthy enough to own property that needed protection. Examples have been found in which the keys have even been made to match the architecture of the door, with the door and the lock made entirely of metal.

Spirits and fortune

In medieval times it was thought that the iron in keys and locks could ward off evil. It was also thought that evil spirits could enter the home through small spaces such as keyholes, so the obvious solution was to make the door fittings from iron. As an added precaution, tiny wrought-iron dragon heads were fitted onto the keyholes; they can still be seen today on the doors of the UK’s oldest churches. The prospect of bad luck was also taken very seriously by the metalsmiths, who always placed two pairs of iron tongs in a cross whenever they left the forge, to ward off misfortune.

Ten is better than one

In the Middle Ages, when locks were of the ward design, they did little to deter thieves. This is because the ward lock relied on a set of obstructions (known as wards) to prevent the lock from being opened without the correct key. The problem was that the lock could be circumvented by using a crudely-bent wire. The locksmith’s usual solution to this situation was to simply add more locks; anywhere between five and ten was not unusual. All this did, however, was slow down the thief. The more skilled locksmiths created a lock that required several keys, but since they all operated under the same system, a clever thief was able to disable all the keys in the same manner.

To catch a thief

Rather than spending time on inventing a different type of lock, it seems the locksmiths from the Middle Ages became more interested in incapacitating any would-be thieves. One example included a false lid that was fitted onto a coffer, with a series of holes that appeared to be convenient finger grips; when the lock was picked and the robber put his hands in the finger grips, a spring was activated that released steel jaws to latch onto the fingers. Ouch! Another style of lock incorporated a pistol behind the lock. It fired point blank at anyone who opened the lock without operating the secret safety catch first.

The royal master key

It was Henry II of France who first used the system of a master key. When designing the locks for the door of his mistress’s apartment, he had his locksmith fit three locks, each with a different ward arrangement and each needing a different key to unlock it. Then he had a king’s master key made that would unlock all three. The system used then is still in operation today in many hotels.


In 1778, Mr Robert Barron patented a lock that extended the lever tumbler principle and ultimately eliminated the use of wards. Twelve years later, in 1790, a Mr Bird developed a modification to the Barron lock that initiated the lever lock we use today. Bird’s lock removed the wards and introduced four double-acting tumblers – the keys being instantly recognisable by the differing lengths of the steps that were needed to fit the differing heights of the levers. The centre of lock production in the UK was a town called Willenhall in Staffordshire; by 1841 there were 268 locksmiths, 76 key-makers, 14 bolt-makers and 13 latch-makers operating there.

Making the key

Key production in the 19th century was a laborious affair. The end of a red-hot rod of iron was taken straight from the forge into a half-mould of the key, which had been created in an anvil or solid block. A heavy weight, which had on its underside the other half of the key mould, was raised by a cord and then dropped onto the mould, pressing the two halves of the mould together and creating the shape of the key. The solid metal was pressed out, and if the key required it, a treadle was used to drill a piercing. The key was then filed and finished using a file and cold chisel.

The key on display

Most key collectors concentrate on pre-1850s keys, which means those from the Victorian era and later are relatively common and inexpensive, although clock keys are usually higher priced. If you’re buying old keys for investment, don’t polish them; the patina forms part of the value.

This article is courtesy of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit magazine. A year’s subscription (that’s four issues: spring, summer, autumn and winter) is $48. To subscribe visit

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