My grandparents on both my Mom’s and Dad’s sides had beautiful old homes. Compared to the post-war bungalow where I grew up, their houses displayed craftsmanship of wood, and plaster, and creative details that my own house didn’t have. Just as my own upbringing was solid, functional and straightforward, both sets of grandparents possessed the nostalgia, steadfastness, and whimsy that their own houses portrayed. At least in my mind.
And it was in visiting my grandparents’ houses where I first fell in love.
To a child, the smallest of details are captured by imagination. My father’s parents’ house had tiny doors that opened to other lands… and doubled as a place for grown-ups to collect their milk and mail when not in the company of children.
They also had doorknobs fit for royalty.
Unlike the dulled utilitarian brass knobs at my own home, my grandparents’ doorknobs were made of glass that sparkled in the sunlight. Little prisms of opulence whose rainbows formed the bridge between this world and the one created in my imagination. I remember thinking those doorknobs were as precious as diamonds, and my mother’s stern warnings of “don’t touch” as we walked through MacIntosh and Watts, instilled in me the appropriate sense of reverence when looking at them.
I vowed one day that I, too, would have a house with pretty crystal knobs on every door.
Thirty five years later, I broke that promise when we bought this house.
As I completed our first walk through, I was disheartened to find that the doorknobs here range from simple farmhouse latches for the upstairs bedrooms, to some ugly brown marbled doorknobs on the doors downstairs.
When we painted the living room over the holidays, we decided to remove some of the doors. While we don’t want to subscribe to open-concept living in this house, it does makes sense to remove the physical doors we don’t use. Andi was more than happy to take them off our hands to find them new homes as up-cycled farmhouse tables.
Not only was I happy for her to take them, I was also secretly happy to give away those ugly doorknobs that came with them.
A week later, I stopped by her booth at the flea market. She excitedly thanked us again for the doors… and breathlessly exclaimed her absolute delight in the doorknobs.
Somehow, I had been so busy being disappointed by the lack of glass doorknobs, that my grown-up self had misplaced my childhood sense of wonder. Back then, I would have easily looked beyond the physical object before me to discover the beauty others might have missed.
Of course with a farmhouse built in 1830, glass would not have been readily available. I’m not sure when the doors were installed, but it actually stands to the reason that the doorknobs would be anything but glass.
So imagine my surprise when I discover that these ugly swirly brown doorknobs that I have been detesting for over a year are actually a most coveted antique for doorknob collectors.
Called a Bennington Doorknob, the name comes from the town of Bennington, Vermont, where in 1849 Christopher Webber Fenton developed the method used to create the swirls and specks that characterize them. While you can now buy replicas, the originals were made from clay.
A search on the Antique Doorknob Collectors of America website revealed more information:
How do I know if I have a real Bennington knob?
To be a Bennington, the knob body must be cream colored. Verified specimens of Bennington knobs, infrequently found on the open market, are glazed through two distinctive processes: a Rocking ham glaze or Flint Enamel glaze. The Rockingham glaze is characterized by a mottled appearance, cause by the application of a glaze with manganese content. This glaze may be applied by several methods: by spattering, dripping, sponging or brushing in an uneven manner, allowing th cream colored body to remain exposed to a greater or lesser degree.
The Flint Enamel was perfected by Christopher Fenton in 1849. This glaze is characterized by a rich appearance of mingling colors produced by sprinkling metallic salts on the knob body, over a transparent under-glaze. (Source: Antique Builders’ Hardware Knobs & Accessories by Maud L. Eastwood)
Grandparents have such a wonderful way of inspiring whole other lifetimes. In researching Bennington knobs, I came across this blog post from another farmhouse rehabilitator. Her grandmother had saved a Bennington knob for her granddaughter to use in her own house when the time came.
While I was coveting glass doorknobs, she was coveting Benningtons.
I guess in old houses, you are never just holding a doorknob but a piece of history and all of the memories that go with it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While I don’t see the sparkle of glass, my grown-up self appreciates the lost art form we are so lucky to have.
“All that glisters is not gold…”