Under Lock and Key

AP-avatar Cara/Andrea here, For some reason, the two books I just turned in to my editors as done, done, done features heroes who have, among their many admirable talents, a skill at picking locks. No, I’m not a secret kleptomaniac, but as the plots involved mystery and skullduggery, it proved a very useful skill in ensuring that Good would ultimately triumph over Evil.

Lock-german-sign-1750  Now, it goes without saying that in Regency times, there were no cyber passwords, no push button electrical diodes, no computer-generated time release systems. For the most part, keeping people from getting in—or out—was achieved by means of two objects: a lock and a key.

Lock-dockland-early-1760- Simple, right? Indeed, they are the sort of mundane, utilitarian things that one doesn’t really pay too much attention to. But when I started to think about, I realized how ubiquitous they were in daily life of my characters. From jewelry boxes and writing desks to townhouses and gaols, locks were everywhere. (And so were keys, of course. There is a reason we have our haute monde housekeepers rattling around with enough metal to supply one of Wellington’s heavy artillery brigades.) In that light, I decided to take a closer look at the subject . . . and it was fascinating to see the infinite varieties throughout the centuries. For like many everyday objects, they evolved into artforms in themselves—many are both beautiful and functional.

Keys So I thought it might be fun to sneak an inside peek at some examples that can be found throughout London’s wonderful museums. The V & A has a whole gallery devoted to the subject, and many of the smaller specialty establishments, like the Museum of London and the Museum of London Dockyards (both really interesting places!) also offer an intriguing glimpse at security in the past.

From The Simple to the Sublime

Lock-english Lock-english-1730 The concept of lock and key works on pretty much the same principle for both inset locking mechanisms and padlocks. A length of stiff, strong material, usually a type of metal, is crafted with a unique serrated pattern that fits into an interior arrangement of moveable parts. A twist or turn of this key snugs a bolt into place, which prevents a hasp, door, lid—whatever—from being opened. Only the key will (in theory) release the bolt.

 On the whole, the basic system has worked remarkably well over the centuries, but of course, over the years, human ingenuity has come up with all sorts of embellishments. Size, substance and sophistication of the gears and levers all come into play in determining how much of a deterrent the lock is to would-be intruders.

The very first models were probably rather primitive. Here are a few examples from the 14th and 15th centuries that illustrate the basic idea . . .
Lock-early-london-1600 Lock-tudor-city-of-london
Padlock-english-1500s

However as metallurgy, tools and craftsmanship developed, locks and keys became anything but crude! Here are a few 16th and 17th century examples. I love how they say “KEEP OUT” with a Baroque flourish.
Lock-german-1700  Lock-german-masterpiece-lock--1630
Lock-german-puzzle-1770

Form and Function

The actual mechanics aside, I see a number of interesting messages in the design elements. Big—and I mean BIG—says loud and clear that this is not a space to mess with. Other motifs are more subtle. I imagine that a ducal crest is meant to add an extra measure of intimidating authority to the forged iron. And perhaps sheer beauty is meant to discourage breaking and entering on purely aesthetic grounds.

Ornate-key Keys-2 And keys . . . well that’s a whole subject unto itself. Size and ornateness conferred a certain authority, don’t you think?  And given that some many ordinary people had to wear a ring of them everyday, it’s no wonder that even simple models had a pleasing aesthetic.

Newgate-doot And lastly, this locked door from Newgate prison, on display at the Museum of London, warns what Fate awaited those who were caught trespassing or stealing. (My heroes purloin only information and the ill-gotten goods of the villains, so they are in no danger of being thrown in the slammer.)

From Steel to Cyber . . .

Alas, like many modern things, everyday locks have lost a lot of their artistic allure. But if you keep your eyes open as you walk around, I’m sure you’ll start to notice some interesting old ones. These days, I’ve managed to trim down my personal key ring so I don’t look or sound like the housekeeper of Manderley. But my cyber- multi-page codebook to keep track of all my passwords. It weighs on me, and quite honestly, I’m not sure either that I’m any safer, despite the sophisticated technology.

Are you like me in feeling that in this cyber world, the threat to personal security is just as daunting as it was in Regency times? Would you feel more comfortable with old fashioned keys, or are you good with the brave new world?