Early Locks and Lockmakers of America

Gene Anderson’s personal “lock book” collection contains a hardcover book called, “Early Locks and Lockmakers of America.”  Written by Thomas F. Hennessy, it was published in 1976 by Nickerson & Collins Publishing Co., Locksmith Ledger Division, in Des Plaines, Illinois. (A few copies are still available on Amazon.com.)

Dedicated to “The thousands of talented men and women who in America design, manufacture, repair and install locks, and to those who have gone before them,” it is a peek through the keyhole at the development of America’s lock industry, written when the country was celebrating its 200th birthday.

Familiar lock manufacturers’ names, including Corbin, Yale, Master Lock, Sargent and Schlage, are listed in the Table of Contents. Photos of company founders, as well as photos of early locks and lock factories, illustrate the yellowed pages of the slim brown book.

It is not riveting reading, but it does describe the “men of genius” who became the first lock makers in America. It tells the history of converting from the craft of handmade locks to developing lock making machinery for mass production, and standardization that resulted in better locks and lower costs.

The story of the first “fire exit bolt locks” is told in the book’s final chapter. These massive metal locks were developed because of a tragic fire at the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, December 30, 1903. A total of 596 persons lost their lives in this fire because the doors opened inward and were locked by deadbolts which prevented the people from getting out. The first patent issued in America on this type lock was granted to Hugh E. Clark, in November, 1905. This fire exit bolt lock allowed the doors to swing outward, yet locked the door on the inside with rods extending from the top to the bottom of the door. Pushing on a large plate which extended across the face of the door retracted the locking bolts and allowed the door to open.

An early hardware company in the manufacture of these locks was the Vonnegut Hardware Co., Indianapolis, Indiana. This company’s fire exit bolt locks were sold under the name “Von Duprin.” This name was derived from three names, “Von” from Vonnegut, “Du” from Henry DuPont, the architectural engineer and inventor, and “prin” from Carl Prinzler, the financial backer and later salesman for the new line of locks.

P.F. Corbin Co., Sargent & Co. and Monarch Hardware & Mfg. Co. were other early companies that developed and manufactured these emergency exit locks.