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?

85 thoughts on “Under Lock and Key”

  1. Hi Cara/Andrea. This is very interesting. I love old keys. In fact I have an old tin with lots of old keys in it. Many of them belonged to my parents, and some belonged to my grandparents. Unfortunately I have no idea what they open or close as the case may be, although I did notice one that belonged to a long parted with motor vhicle. I hope whoever bought the car managed with the one key.
    As far as feeling safe today in the cyber world in which we live, well I can cope, but I much prefer the feel of the metal key when I am locking or unlocking my front door.

    Reply
  2. Hi Cara/Andrea. This is very interesting. I love old keys. In fact I have an old tin with lots of old keys in it. Many of them belonged to my parents, and some belonged to my grandparents. Unfortunately I have no idea what they open or close as the case may be, although I did notice one that belonged to a long parted with motor vhicle. I hope whoever bought the car managed with the one key.
    As far as feeling safe today in the cyber world in which we live, well I can cope, but I much prefer the feel of the metal key when I am locking or unlocking my front door.

    Reply
  3. Hi Cara/Andrea. This is very interesting. I love old keys. In fact I have an old tin with lots of old keys in it. Many of them belonged to my parents, and some belonged to my grandparents. Unfortunately I have no idea what they open or close as the case may be, although I did notice one that belonged to a long parted with motor vhicle. I hope whoever bought the car managed with the one key.
    As far as feeling safe today in the cyber world in which we live, well I can cope, but I much prefer the feel of the metal key when I am locking or unlocking my front door.

    Reply
  4. Hi Cara/Andrea. This is very interesting. I love old keys. In fact I have an old tin with lots of old keys in it. Many of them belonged to my parents, and some belonged to my grandparents. Unfortunately I have no idea what they open or close as the case may be, although I did notice one that belonged to a long parted with motor vhicle. I hope whoever bought the car managed with the one key.
    As far as feeling safe today in the cyber world in which we live, well I can cope, but I much prefer the feel of the metal key when I am locking or unlocking my front door.

    Reply
  5. Hi Cara/Andrea. This is very interesting. I love old keys. In fact I have an old tin with lots of old keys in it. Many of them belonged to my parents, and some belonged to my grandparents. Unfortunately I have no idea what they open or close as the case may be, although I did notice one that belonged to a long parted with motor vhicle. I hope whoever bought the car managed with the one key.
    As far as feeling safe today in the cyber world in which we live, well I can cope, but I much prefer the feel of the metal key when I am locking or unlocking my front door.

    Reply
  6. I find old keys wonderful too, and I wonder if the trend for necklaces made of keys (Tiffany has lots lately) reflects a yearning for tangible security
    I too like turning a key to lock my door when I leave the house, rather than just swiping a piece of plastic. Feeling a bolt move in response to my touch is somehow reassuring.

    Reply
  7. I find old keys wonderful too, and I wonder if the trend for necklaces made of keys (Tiffany has lots lately) reflects a yearning for tangible security
    I too like turning a key to lock my door when I leave the house, rather than just swiping a piece of plastic. Feeling a bolt move in response to my touch is somehow reassuring.

    Reply
  8. I find old keys wonderful too, and I wonder if the trend for necklaces made of keys (Tiffany has lots lately) reflects a yearning for tangible security
    I too like turning a key to lock my door when I leave the house, rather than just swiping a piece of plastic. Feeling a bolt move in response to my touch is somehow reassuring.

    Reply
  9. I find old keys wonderful too, and I wonder if the trend for necklaces made of keys (Tiffany has lots lately) reflects a yearning for tangible security
    I too like turning a key to lock my door when I leave the house, rather than just swiping a piece of plastic. Feeling a bolt move in response to my touch is somehow reassuring.

    Reply
  10. I find old keys wonderful too, and I wonder if the trend for necklaces made of keys (Tiffany has lots lately) reflects a yearning for tangible security
    I too like turning a key to lock my door when I leave the house, rather than just swiping a piece of plastic. Feeling a bolt move in response to my touch is somehow reassuring.

    Reply
  11. Lovely post Cara/Andrea. Some of those keys and locks are so beautiful. I love the intricate filigree of them.
    It’s a pity so many keys today are so plain.
    There is a mystery and a lurking story behind some keys, I think. What will they unlock? Where will they take us?

    Reply
  12. Lovely post Cara/Andrea. Some of those keys and locks are so beautiful. I love the intricate filigree of them.
    It’s a pity so many keys today are so plain.
    There is a mystery and a lurking story behind some keys, I think. What will they unlock? Where will they take us?

    Reply
  13. Lovely post Cara/Andrea. Some of those keys and locks are so beautiful. I love the intricate filigree of them.
    It’s a pity so many keys today are so plain.
    There is a mystery and a lurking story behind some keys, I think. What will they unlock? Where will they take us?

    Reply
  14. Lovely post Cara/Andrea. Some of those keys and locks are so beautiful. I love the intricate filigree of them.
    It’s a pity so many keys today are so plain.
    There is a mystery and a lurking story behind some keys, I think. What will they unlock? Where will they take us?

    Reply
  15. Lovely post Cara/Andrea. Some of those keys and locks are so beautiful. I love the intricate filigree of them.
    It’s a pity so many keys today are so plain.
    There is a mystery and a lurking story behind some keys, I think. What will they unlock? Where will they take us?

    Reply
  16. Anne, I really loved the display at the V&A—they do such an incredible job of showcasing the beauty of everyday items. A whole floor is devoted to ironwork, including gates, andirons, etc.
    Old keys have a real allure—as you say, the idea of what portals they will unlock is so intriguing. The new ones, like so many objects today, have lost a lot of that because there is little beauty in them.

    Reply
  17. Anne, I really loved the display at the V&A—they do such an incredible job of showcasing the beauty of everyday items. A whole floor is devoted to ironwork, including gates, andirons, etc.
    Old keys have a real allure—as you say, the idea of what portals they will unlock is so intriguing. The new ones, like so many objects today, have lost a lot of that because there is little beauty in them.

    Reply
  18. Anne, I really loved the display at the V&A—they do such an incredible job of showcasing the beauty of everyday items. A whole floor is devoted to ironwork, including gates, andirons, etc.
    Old keys have a real allure—as you say, the idea of what portals they will unlock is so intriguing. The new ones, like so many objects today, have lost a lot of that because there is little beauty in them.

    Reply
  19. Anne, I really loved the display at the V&A—they do such an incredible job of showcasing the beauty of everyday items. A whole floor is devoted to ironwork, including gates, andirons, etc.
    Old keys have a real allure—as you say, the idea of what portals they will unlock is so intriguing. The new ones, like so many objects today, have lost a lot of that because there is little beauty in them.

    Reply
  20. Anne, I really loved the display at the V&A—they do such an incredible job of showcasing the beauty of everyday items. A whole floor is devoted to ironwork, including gates, andirons, etc.
    Old keys have a real allure—as you say, the idea of what portals they will unlock is so intriguing. The new ones, like so many objects today, have lost a lot of that because there is little beauty in them.

    Reply
  21. We have an English sideboard from about 1900 that has locks on either side. The keys in the drawer when we bought it only fit one side, so the dealer just shuffled through a bunch of spares until he found one that fit. Skeleton sideboard keys!
    That said, I love the electronic key to my car. Just keep it in my purse and never take it out and I can’t lose it!

    Reply
  22. We have an English sideboard from about 1900 that has locks on either side. The keys in the drawer when we bought it only fit one side, so the dealer just shuffled through a bunch of spares until he found one that fit. Skeleton sideboard keys!
    That said, I love the electronic key to my car. Just keep it in my purse and never take it out and I can’t lose it!

    Reply
  23. We have an English sideboard from about 1900 that has locks on either side. The keys in the drawer when we bought it only fit one side, so the dealer just shuffled through a bunch of spares until he found one that fit. Skeleton sideboard keys!
    That said, I love the electronic key to my car. Just keep it in my purse and never take it out and I can’t lose it!

    Reply
  24. We have an English sideboard from about 1900 that has locks on either side. The keys in the drawer when we bought it only fit one side, so the dealer just shuffled through a bunch of spares until he found one that fit. Skeleton sideboard keys!
    That said, I love the electronic key to my car. Just keep it in my purse and never take it out and I can’t lose it!

    Reply
  25. We have an English sideboard from about 1900 that has locks on either side. The keys in the drawer when we bought it only fit one side, so the dealer just shuffled through a bunch of spares until he found one that fit. Skeleton sideboard keys!
    That said, I love the electronic key to my car. Just keep it in my purse and never take it out and I can’t lose it!

    Reply
  26. Well, I lose my material keys and I lose my password keys (rarely in both cases, but I DO lose them), so I doubt if I am more secure in either case.
    The best thing about the cyber keys may be that they set automatically. If you forget to lock your car or house door, than the key you hold is no deterrent to a thief.

    Reply
  27. Well, I lose my material keys and I lose my password keys (rarely in both cases, but I DO lose them), so I doubt if I am more secure in either case.
    The best thing about the cyber keys may be that they set automatically. If you forget to lock your car or house door, than the key you hold is no deterrent to a thief.

    Reply
  28. Well, I lose my material keys and I lose my password keys (rarely in both cases, but I DO lose them), so I doubt if I am more secure in either case.
    The best thing about the cyber keys may be that they set automatically. If you forget to lock your car or house door, than the key you hold is no deterrent to a thief.

    Reply
  29. Well, I lose my material keys and I lose my password keys (rarely in both cases, but I DO lose them), so I doubt if I am more secure in either case.
    The best thing about the cyber keys may be that they set automatically. If you forget to lock your car or house door, than the key you hold is no deterrent to a thief.

    Reply
  30. Well, I lose my material keys and I lose my password keys (rarely in both cases, but I DO lose them), so I doubt if I am more secure in either case.
    The best thing about the cyber keys may be that they set automatically. If you forget to lock your car or house door, than the key you hold is no deterrent to a thief.

    Reply
  31. Sherrie here. Andrea, I live in a very old rural neighborhood, where all the neighbors know each other and have lived here for decades (I’ve lived here for 37 years). Many of my neighbors still don’t lock their doors. I have decent locks on my house, of course, but I also have two big dogs–a Doberman and a Boxer.
    This must be very much how it was in rural olden days, don’t you think? Neighbors knowing each other, and watching out for each other? And having dogs about, to warn away intruders? In the City, I’m sure folks must have locked their doors, but in the country, I wonder what the poorer folks did? Would they have had locks on their doors? I imagine some of these folks just had a crude bar to swing across their door at bedtime.
    I adore those ornate keys in your post, Andrea. Such workmanship! I’ve saved keys for years, though unfortunately I have none of those beautiful ornate things. I just like keys, so I save them, just as I save buttons, because they are pretty.
    You pose an interesting question regarding passwords as “cyber keys.” A computer tech once told me that most people keep their passwords on the left side of their lap drawer or in their left-hand desk drawer, making it very easy for computer thieves. So maybe you’re right–are we any safer in this electronic world than folks were during the Regency?

    Reply
  32. Sherrie here. Andrea, I live in a very old rural neighborhood, where all the neighbors know each other and have lived here for decades (I’ve lived here for 37 years). Many of my neighbors still don’t lock their doors. I have decent locks on my house, of course, but I also have two big dogs–a Doberman and a Boxer.
    This must be very much how it was in rural olden days, don’t you think? Neighbors knowing each other, and watching out for each other? And having dogs about, to warn away intruders? In the City, I’m sure folks must have locked their doors, but in the country, I wonder what the poorer folks did? Would they have had locks on their doors? I imagine some of these folks just had a crude bar to swing across their door at bedtime.
    I adore those ornate keys in your post, Andrea. Such workmanship! I’ve saved keys for years, though unfortunately I have none of those beautiful ornate things. I just like keys, so I save them, just as I save buttons, because they are pretty.
    You pose an interesting question regarding passwords as “cyber keys.” A computer tech once told me that most people keep their passwords on the left side of their lap drawer or in their left-hand desk drawer, making it very easy for computer thieves. So maybe you’re right–are we any safer in this electronic world than folks were during the Regency?

    Reply
  33. Sherrie here. Andrea, I live in a very old rural neighborhood, where all the neighbors know each other and have lived here for decades (I’ve lived here for 37 years). Many of my neighbors still don’t lock their doors. I have decent locks on my house, of course, but I also have two big dogs–a Doberman and a Boxer.
    This must be very much how it was in rural olden days, don’t you think? Neighbors knowing each other, and watching out for each other? And having dogs about, to warn away intruders? In the City, I’m sure folks must have locked their doors, but in the country, I wonder what the poorer folks did? Would they have had locks on their doors? I imagine some of these folks just had a crude bar to swing across their door at bedtime.
    I adore those ornate keys in your post, Andrea. Such workmanship! I’ve saved keys for years, though unfortunately I have none of those beautiful ornate things. I just like keys, so I save them, just as I save buttons, because they are pretty.
    You pose an interesting question regarding passwords as “cyber keys.” A computer tech once told me that most people keep their passwords on the left side of their lap drawer or in their left-hand desk drawer, making it very easy for computer thieves. So maybe you’re right–are we any safer in this electronic world than folks were during the Regency?

    Reply
  34. Sherrie here. Andrea, I live in a very old rural neighborhood, where all the neighbors know each other and have lived here for decades (I’ve lived here for 37 years). Many of my neighbors still don’t lock their doors. I have decent locks on my house, of course, but I also have two big dogs–a Doberman and a Boxer.
    This must be very much how it was in rural olden days, don’t you think? Neighbors knowing each other, and watching out for each other? And having dogs about, to warn away intruders? In the City, I’m sure folks must have locked their doors, but in the country, I wonder what the poorer folks did? Would they have had locks on their doors? I imagine some of these folks just had a crude bar to swing across their door at bedtime.
    I adore those ornate keys in your post, Andrea. Such workmanship! I’ve saved keys for years, though unfortunately I have none of those beautiful ornate things. I just like keys, so I save them, just as I save buttons, because they are pretty.
    You pose an interesting question regarding passwords as “cyber keys.” A computer tech once told me that most people keep their passwords on the left side of their lap drawer or in their left-hand desk drawer, making it very easy for computer thieves. So maybe you’re right–are we any safer in this electronic world than folks were during the Regency?

    Reply
  35. Sherrie here. Andrea, I live in a very old rural neighborhood, where all the neighbors know each other and have lived here for decades (I’ve lived here for 37 years). Many of my neighbors still don’t lock their doors. I have decent locks on my house, of course, but I also have two big dogs–a Doberman and a Boxer.
    This must be very much how it was in rural olden days, don’t you think? Neighbors knowing each other, and watching out for each other? And having dogs about, to warn away intruders? In the City, I’m sure folks must have locked their doors, but in the country, I wonder what the poorer folks did? Would they have had locks on their doors? I imagine some of these folks just had a crude bar to swing across their door at bedtime.
    I adore those ornate keys in your post, Andrea. Such workmanship! I’ve saved keys for years, though unfortunately I have none of those beautiful ornate things. I just like keys, so I save them, just as I save buttons, because they are pretty.
    You pose an interesting question regarding passwords as “cyber keys.” A computer tech once told me that most people keep their passwords on the left side of their lap drawer or in their left-hand desk drawer, making it very easy for computer thieves. So maybe you’re right–are we any safer in this electronic world than folks were during the Regency?

    Reply
  36. Gorgeous post, Andrea. Another for my notebook. Some of those keys and locks are true works of art.
    I remember the keys to our house in England – skeleton style and very old. I thought there were so neat as a child. And as we brought home some lovely antique furniture and clocks I still get to use skeleton keys when I visit my Mom.
    I much prefer the turning of a key in a lock for my own security. Actually these days I think I’d like a moat as well! Then again I do have large dogs outside and small dogs inside so I feel fairly safe in spite of the fact I live alone in the middle of nowhere.
    I change my cyber keys periodically as I am a bit more paranoid about them than the physical keys.

    Reply
  37. Gorgeous post, Andrea. Another for my notebook. Some of those keys and locks are true works of art.
    I remember the keys to our house in England – skeleton style and very old. I thought there were so neat as a child. And as we brought home some lovely antique furniture and clocks I still get to use skeleton keys when I visit my Mom.
    I much prefer the turning of a key in a lock for my own security. Actually these days I think I’d like a moat as well! Then again I do have large dogs outside and small dogs inside so I feel fairly safe in spite of the fact I live alone in the middle of nowhere.
    I change my cyber keys periodically as I am a bit more paranoid about them than the physical keys.

    Reply
  38. Gorgeous post, Andrea. Another for my notebook. Some of those keys and locks are true works of art.
    I remember the keys to our house in England – skeleton style and very old. I thought there were so neat as a child. And as we brought home some lovely antique furniture and clocks I still get to use skeleton keys when I visit my Mom.
    I much prefer the turning of a key in a lock for my own security. Actually these days I think I’d like a moat as well! Then again I do have large dogs outside and small dogs inside so I feel fairly safe in spite of the fact I live alone in the middle of nowhere.
    I change my cyber keys periodically as I am a bit more paranoid about them than the physical keys.

    Reply
  39. Gorgeous post, Andrea. Another for my notebook. Some of those keys and locks are true works of art.
    I remember the keys to our house in England – skeleton style and very old. I thought there were so neat as a child. And as we brought home some lovely antique furniture and clocks I still get to use skeleton keys when I visit my Mom.
    I much prefer the turning of a key in a lock for my own security. Actually these days I think I’d like a moat as well! Then again I do have large dogs outside and small dogs inside so I feel fairly safe in spite of the fact I live alone in the middle of nowhere.
    I change my cyber keys periodically as I am a bit more paranoid about them than the physical keys.

    Reply
  40. Gorgeous post, Andrea. Another for my notebook. Some of those keys and locks are true works of art.
    I remember the keys to our house in England – skeleton style and very old. I thought there were so neat as a child. And as we brought home some lovely antique furniture and clocks I still get to use skeleton keys when I visit my Mom.
    I much prefer the turning of a key in a lock for my own security. Actually these days I think I’d like a moat as well! Then again I do have large dogs outside and small dogs inside so I feel fairly safe in spite of the fact I live alone in the middle of nowhere.
    I change my cyber keys periodically as I am a bit more paranoid about them than the physical keys.

    Reply

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