There once was a time — 80 or so years ago — when multifaceted glass doorknobs with mirrored star-burst centers were standard issue in new homes. Today, they are mined like diamonds at salvage yards and flea markets. Unlike the flimsy "builder's special" models now sold at he corner hardware store, glass knobs from the first half of the 20th century were made to last, mounted in steel or brass shanks, as opposed to the brittle metal alloy and plastic ones used now, says Brad Kittel, president of the Antique Doorknob Collectors of America. Their enduring craftsmanship and design — and their ability to work with most modern locksets — have earned them preferential status among owners of old and new houses alike.
Emblems of Wartime Shortages
Glass doorknobs date back to 1826, when the process for pressing molten glass into molds was invented, but they didn't become ubiquitous until after the United States entered World War I, in 1917. Cast brass, bronze, and iron doorknobs, which had dominated the hardware market since the beginning of the Victorian era in 1860, were in short supply because metals were needed for airplanes and ammunition. "But there was still plenty of sand out there to make glass with," says Kittel. And by 1920, the largest hardware makers, including Yale & Towne Manufacturing Co. of Connecticut and Barrows Lock Co. of Illinois, were mass-producing doorknobs of molded and machine-cut glass, and cut crystal to suit various house styles, wallet sizes, and tastes.
During that era, most glass knobs were clear and featured six, eight, or 12 facets. Their faces were flat so you could peer inside to see star, bullet, and pin-prick designs molded into their bases. Less common were colored-glass knobs in robin's egg and cobalt blues, emerald, amber, violet, white milk, and Vaseline glass (which got its yellow-green color from adding trace amounts of uranium to the mold.) Shapes also varied, from ovals with incised star patterns to crystal globes with tiny bubbles inside — a popular 1920s Art Deco style that works well with modern interiors today.
The use of glass knobs continued through the '40s, but by the '50s tastes in both architecture and hardware had changed, and Americans began favoring cleaner modern lines in metals. Before long, developers were outfitting doors in suburban ranch houses with utilitarian-looking steel orbs.
Where To Find Them
Today, salvaged glass doorknobs are easy to find. But there are important points about fit, style, and construction to consider before buying.
If you are looking to replace a single knob in a set, always bring along the mate, since there are more than 100 glass-knob patterns to choose from. You'll also want to bring the spindle. Doorknobs manufactured after 1900 have threads inside their shanks that fit square, threaded spindles. Glass knobs made before the turn of the century were typically mounted on unthreaded spindles with holes in either end. In both cases, the knobs are secured to the rods with small setscrews. Be sure to fit the spindle to the knob before you buy because threads and setscrew sizes can vary widely.
For pairs of knobs, you'll want to measure the door's thickness and compare it with the span between the knobs to ensure a snug fit. Though spindles are rarely too short, threaded ones are sometimes too long and may require cutting down with a hacksaw. Avoid pairs that are missing their spindles or setscrews. And be wary of knobs that turn inside their metal shanks, which can't be fixed. "If you get a spinner, it's worthless as a functional knob," says Kittel, who has tried in vain to reset the knobs with glass epoxy. "It works for awhile but it always comes loose again."
Prices for vintage glass knobs vary widely, depending on condition, rarity, style, and color. For the most common, 12-sided molded-glass knobs, expect to pay between $30 and $50 a pair. Sets of six- or eight-sided knobs cost between $60 and $100, while a pair of cut-crystal balls can go for as much as $500. Most valuable are red, cobalt, and Vaseline-glass knobs. Such fine knobs were used in mansions at the entrances to formal areas, such as parlors and dining rooms, where homeowners entertained guests.
Today, hardware-store-variety glass knobs cost as little as $10 a pair, but the materials and craftsmanship are far inferior to the vintage counterparts. "The old glass has a watery look and refracts light differently," says Kittle of knobs gently worn by time and use. "And when you hold it in your hand, it just feels better."