A skeleton key is a key on which the inside bit has been hollowed so that the key can open many different locks.
On a skeleton key, the serrated edge has been removed to allow the key to serve as a master key to open many different warded locks within a specific system.
In popular culture and literature, skeleton keys are strong symbols; they’re even thought to bring good luck. But how do these old things work and what do they symbolize? Read on to unlock everything you ever wanted to know about these interesting keys.
Why are skeleton keys called skeleton keys?
The term ‘skeleton key’ derives from the fact that the key has been reduced to its essential parts.
However, the name often refers to any antique key, no matter how ornate. As long as there is a bow, a narrow shank or shaft, and a flat extension on one side near the bottom of the shaft, a key is often considered a skeleton key.
How does a skeleton key work?
Skeleton keys can work with warded locks or lever locks.
With a warded lock, a skeleton key lacks interior notches to interfere with or correspond with the wards, or obstructions, thereby allowing it to open the lock.
In a lever lock—that is, a lock with a set of levers and wards—the skeleton key can push the levers to the correct height while bypassing the wards. In this type of system, each lock will still have its own key that corresponds with the wards; the skeleton key, or master key, can open any of the locks within that system. (You may find these locks at hotels, office buildings, schools, or apartment buildings.)
Are all skeleton keys the same?
Although a skeleton key is a “master key,” not all skeleton keys are the same. The size and cut of the key’s bit, as well as the diameter of its barrel, determine whether it fits with a lock. Additionally, antique (or reproduction antique) skeleton keys are known for their intricate details.
This might leave you wondering, “How can I open a skeleton key lock?” Maybe you have a piece of antique furniture, such as a desk, cabinet, or dresser, that uses a skeleton key. Or maybe you live in an old home that still has the original locks on interior doors. But here’s the catch: You don’t have the original skeleton keys for these locks.
You have a couple of options: A locksmith can help you out. Or if you’re in a pinch, you might be able to use a common household item to click open the lock. We don’t recommend this, however. If you can wait, the best course of action is to find a skeleton key that will work for your lock.
Can a locksmith make a skeleton key?
If you have an old lock that requires a skeleton key, or perhaps you have an old home with existing skeleton keys or locks that use them, a locksmith can help you out. Many old homes in the Chicago area were originally made with locks that required skeleton keys.
We still cut and sell skeleton keys at Anderson Lock in Des Plaines for use in old residential locks, as well as for fine cabinetry. Whether you need to buy a skeleton key or you need one duplicated, our team can help.
What is the value of skeleton keys?
Antique skeleton keys typically are priced at $10 or cheaper, while older skeleton keys or more detailed skeleton keys cost as much as $1000. They are fairly easy to find at estate sales, antique shops, or online. You can find newer antique skeleton key replicas at hardware stores or even home decor retailers.
Keys and locks originated in ancient civilizations, and have been dated as far back as 4000 BC. Genuine antique skeleton keys are quite collectible, although their value varies greatly, depending upon their age, scarcity, embellishments or details, their weight, shape, and size.
Niche antique skeleton key collectors narrow the scope of their collections according to a number of factors that determine the value of skeleton keys:
- Age of the key
- Where the key was used
- The type of metal the key is made of (for example, brass or iron)
- The detail or decoration on the key
What does a skeleton key symbolize?
Skeleton keys symbolize “access to” something, whether it be abstract, as in “keys to a city,” or actual, as in the key to your home. They are often thought to symbolize the key to one’s heart, the key to success, or the key to “unlocking the door” to whatever it is one wishes to attain.
Commemorative keys, like the three large ornamental keys shown above, are popular in homes and offices as objects of art. While collectors seek genuine antique keys, fairly abundant at auctions and flea markets, they need to distinguish them from inexpensive reproductions, favored by artisans.
“Vintage-look” skeleton keys, which come with the disclaimer, “won’t open locks,” do make elegant wedding favors, and can be made into charming wind chimes, jewelry, or framed wall decor.
And, every autumn, skinny skeleton keys accessorize Halloween haunted houses and dungeon-themed props.
Spoo-key, aren’t they?
Skeleton keys as necklaces or wearable art
Skeleton keys have become popular as necklaces or wearable art more generally. Skeleton key necklaces and skeleton key pendants, in fact, are given as a present for one’s 21st birthday.
What does such a key symbolize in the context of a birthday, then? Well, at 21, an individual is old enough to be considered a key holder of her family’s home. As skeleton key fans, we try stay up to date on the latest key necklace trends. We found a few cute enameled keys on Maize Hutton’s Blogspot. Take a peek at some of the photos!
Skeleton keys as glasses frames
Beyond necklaces and jewelry, skeleton keys have made their way into the eyewear market too. Anderson Lock’s Shawn Weinstock usually purchases frames for doors, but the other night she was shopping around for glasses frames. She couldn’t resist snapping a picture of the jeweled skeleton key design from Tiffany’s.
We checked out Tiffany’s website to see if there were other key designs and, yes, there are several. Most notable were the Tiffany Rimless Aviator Sunglasses pictured here. The price tag on this stunning pair is $1,650. I like the website description: “Inspired by keys from the Tiffany Archives that opened doors to private manors and trunks filled with precious heirlooms. Sunglasses in titanium with 18k gold keys.”
We wonder if today’s door and car keys will inspire the next generation’s jewelry and eyewear!
Tell us about your antique or collectible keys!
Have you ever owned a skeleton key? An antique key, even? No matter the case, let us know about your experiences with collectible keys by contacting us. We’d love to hear from you.