Nails, Noggins and Newels: An Alternative History of Every House

Nails, Noggins and Newels: An Alternative History of Every House

by Bill Laws

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752494715
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 02/16/2006
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 242 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

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Nails, Noggins and Newels

An Alternative History of Every House

By Bill Laws

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Bill Laws
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9471-5


Open House

Doors of Perception

Every culture in every corner of the globe has made the most of its front door. In eastern Europe farmers on Muhu Island off Estonia customarily decorated their doors with elaborate, geometric paintings, while southern Europe's Mudéjar craftsmen – Muslims working in Spain after the Christian reconquest – traced intricate patterns with nails in their metal-faced doors. In many countries a red door is auspicious, red being judged a lucky colour, although a red cross on a door in the Middle Ages marked a house visited by the plague. The front door was always a place for leaving signs, symbols and messages. The Revd Francis Kilvert, tramping through his Welsh borders parish to visit one of his flock, would leave a tell-tale on the door: 'At Rhos Goch Lane House no-one was at home so I stuck an ivy leaf into the latch hole', he wrote in March 1870. Spanish Arabs left their own welcoming message on the front door, furnishing it with door knockers shaped in the Hand of Fátima, the Islamic symbol of greeting extended to the stranger. In the west Christmas and Thanksgiving wreaths traditionally decorate the front door.

Inevitably people's taste in door furniture has sometimes verged on the vulgar. According to Charles Eastlake in his Hints on Household Taste published in 1868 the most superior door knockers were to be sourced from Wurzburg in Bavaria. 'They ... afford a pleasant contrast to the hackneyed portraits of tame lions and grinning satyrs which have been adopted as types of the modern door knocker.' But by 1908, according to Henry Walker, correspondent for The Country Home, the fate of the traditional door knocker was sealed by the invention of the electric bell. 'The knocker is doomed,' he lamented. 'The first nail in its coffin was driven when the wire bell-pull was invented, and it will receive its coup de grâce as the use of electric bell-pulls becomes more general.'

In his review of the door knocker Walker also reported on a bizarre feud over a precious door knocker at Brasenose College, Oxford. It seems that in the fourteenth century resentment between students from the north and those from the south led to the northern students abandoning Oxford's hallowed towers and setting up their own hall of learning at Stamford in Lincolnshire. As if to remind themselves of old Oxford they took with them the door knocker from the door of Brasenose College, repelling an attempt by the Sheriff of Lincoln to retrieve it. While Oxford students were required subsequently to swear an oath 'not to attend lectures at Stamford', the aldermen of Stamford steadfastly refused to return the Brasenose knocker and the Oxford college had to perform a piece of subterfuge (by purchasing the Stamford building in 1888) to retrieve their missing knocker.

Meanwhile, the invention that Walker so feared, the electric bell, had been patented by Joseph Henry, the first director of the American Smithsonian Institute, in 1831. (It was a discovery that greatly assisted Alexander Graham Bell, who later remarked 'If it wasn't for his invention I'd never have invented the telephone.') Walker's fear that the electric bell would usurp the door knocker proved unfounded and the traditional panel and frame door, a design imported to England from Flanders in the fifteenth century, would have survived un-mutilated to this day but for the inventions of post-master Roland Hill and the dog-loving Sir Isaac Newton.

On 4 October 1892 George E. Becket registered a new invention at the US Patent Office. His device, he explained, was intended to be permanently secured to the door, 'having an opening or mouth formed therein increasing in width in a vertical direction from the front'. He called his invention a 'house-door letter-box'. Yet British carpenters had been cutting horizontal openings in their customers' doors since January 1840 when the former schoolmaster Rowland Hill launched his Uniform Penny Post. Many doubted that Hill's idea – charging customers to send mail with a pre-paid, gummed label – would ever catch on. A Penny Post had been introduced by London merchant William Dockwra in 1680, but by 1835 it would cost a Humberside housemaid a day's wages to send a letter to her lover in Liverpool. The alternative was to send the letter 'caller collect', with the recipient paying on delivery. But it was said that unscrupulous senders simply wrote their message in secret code on the envelope. When the letter arrived the recipient read the code and then refused delivery, thus avoiding payment. Hill predicted that his Penny Post would prevent such frauds and persuade more people to use the postal system.

He was proved right. On the first day of the Penny Post the pre-paid mail trebled. Before long, plain Mr Hill had become Sir Rowland, his system of gummed labels (or 'stamps') was being copied across the world, and everyone wanted to deface their doors with a letter-box. As elegant Georgian doors, which had never seen a letter-plate, were subjected to a flurry of modernising carpentry work, ironmongers rushed out a range of ornate and decorative letter-plates, many of them, much to Henry Walker's relief, combined with a door knocker. In 1894 Henry Davis efficiently dealt with what might have become a new crime – stealing mail from the letter-box – with his 'improved Thief-proof letterbox'.

The invention of the cat flap and the dog door is attributed to the brilliant seventeenth-century mathematician who first formulated the law of gravity, Sir Isaac Newton, although the pet world had no serious impact on door architecture until the twentieth century. Until then the proper place for the dog was the doghouse outside, while the cat was expected to wait its turn at the back door just like anybody else. Gradually, as these animals wheedled their way into the warm kitchen, back doors began to be damaged and disfigured by spring-loaded, magnet-locking cat flaps and dog doors automatically controlled by passive infra-red eyes. One scientist even tried to patent a device that would trigger a nuclear strike on any neighbour's cat that tried to trespass on his own cat's door. The patent office regretfully refused his application.

Mr Chubb's Scandalous Lock

Houselessness, the hero of Charles Dickens's Uncommercial Traveller, is trudging the London streets. 'Now and then in the night Houselessness becomes aware of a furtive head peering out of a doorway a few yards before him, and, coming up from the head, you find a man standing bolt upright to keep within the doorway's shadow, and evidently intent upon no particular service to society.' Pitted against those intent on breaking down the back door and performing 'no particular service to society' was a contraption that had made millionaires of its inventors, the Chubb family. 'Chubb locks were the first exhibits we regularly inspected and they really are wonderful, of every shape and size. He [John Chubb] explained to us the ingenious manner by which an attempt to force the lock is discovered,' wrote the effusive Queen Victoria in her diary for 10 June 1851 after meeting Mr Chubb at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, London. She had reason to be grateful; her Tudor predecessor Henry VIII was obliged to take his portable Beddington lock with him and have it screwed to the bedroom door wherever he stayed.

As official lock makers to the Prince Consort, the Victorian Chubb family enjoyed prestige and power. No one, least of all John Chubb, was prepared for the scandal that would be unleashed when a young American picked Mr Chubb's most famous lock in public.

John's father Charles Chubb and his uncle Jeremiah had been brought up in the pastoral peace of the Hampshire village of Fordingbridge, where, as Henry Longfellow would have it,

Under a spreading chestnut tree The village smithy stands.

It was to a Winchester smithy that both boys were apprenticed. In his early 30s Charles Chubb opened a naval ironmongery shop in Portsmouth. The year was 1804, the year before Admiral Nelson routed the French fleet at a little-known place called Trafalgar. Business was brisk, and it became considerably brisker following a serious robbery in the Portsmouth dockyard when thieves opened a dockyard lock with a set of duplicate keys. The government offered a £100 reward, not for the return of the stolen goods but for a better lock – a lock that could be opened only with its own key. In 1818 Jeremiah designed the Chubb Detector Lock, won the government prize and patented the product.

Until then most householders had relied on an old-fashioned bar across the door to secure their homes, which was a fine arrangement as long as there was someone at home to lift the bar on their return. An alternative was a primitive lock with a specially shaped plate, fixed over the bolt, which was supposed to prevent any but the correct key being slipped inside. The plate, however, was easily forced. For smaller items, such as a sea-chest or kitchen dresser for example, there were keyless locks, which relied on combinations of numbers or letters. These had been in use in England since the early 1600s:

A cap case for your linen, and your plate, With a strange lock that opens with A.M.E.N.

run the lines of one early seventeenth-century play.

Mr Chubb's new lock was a revelation. To publicise it Chubb adopted the sales methods of his rival Joseph Bramah. Bramah had patented his own Bramah safety lock in 1784 and offered a reward to anyone who could pick it. Jeremiah similarly offered a £100 reward, and a convict and former lock maker languishing on one of the prison ships moored in Portsmouth's docks took up the challenge. The government doubled the odds by offering the felon a free pardon if he could pick the lock. But he could not and, resigning himself to his continued stay behind bars, he declared it the most secure lock he had ever handled.

The convict's testimonial spurred on sales, and between them the Chubb brothers sold over two and a half million Detectors in the next fifty years. They won a royal warrant for their products and in 1828 let it be known that even the Duke of Wellington had chosen to make his London home safe with a Chubb lock. Ironically it was Wellington's defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 which made the door lock so essential. The war left the continental markets depressed and some 400,000 redundant British soldiers roaming the countryside. Crime, and more significantly the fear of crime, soared.

Those of a nervous disposition could choose to move to the safest town in England, Willenhall in Staffordshire. Willenhall, with neighbouring Bilston and Wolverhampton, was the home of the locksmith industry. By the 1850s there were 340 small lock makers in the town, which was nicknamed Humpshire by mocking neighbours, a reference to the lock makers who, having spent their working lives bent over their benches, developed curved spines and hunched backs.

In 1851 the Chubb and Bramah locks were both put forward for the Great Exhibition, that showcase for all things inventive. Bramah was now offering £200 to anyone who could pick his lock. The looming 'Great Lock Controversy' would see both Bramah and Chubb pay up.

The man behind the scandal was the New York salesman and lock maker Alfred Charles Hobbs. He had visited the Exhibition and bought himself a fine lock made by Charles Aubin of Wolverhampton. Shortly afterwards he presented himself at Great George Street in Westminster, London, and announced his intention to pick the unpickable Chubb lock on display. He did so in just 25 minutes. Bramah's lock was his next target. It took a lot longer – 44 hours spread over sixteen days, but finally Hobbs publicly picked the lock.

The nation was horrified. Nervous widows trembled in their beds. Wealthy home-owners purchased large, dangerous guard dogs. One correspondent wrote a letter to The Times newspaper to reassure its readers, commenting that, 'our English locks ... previous to the celebrated "lock controversy" of 1851, had borne a high character for skilful construction, beauty of workmanship, and undoubted security'. Lock manufacturers pointed out that no burglar would ever have the opportunity to spend 44 uninterrupted hours picking a lock. Such remarks reassured neither the public nor the bankers and insurance companies who, naturally, took the locksmith's craft seriously. The Royal Society of Arts was persuaded to mount a major public relations exercise and to offer a prize for the perfect, unpickable lock. A Mr Saxby, amid almost audible sighs of relief from the industry, duly collected the prize for his winning design. The resilient Mr Hobbs then stepped forward and picked the lock. In three minutes.

Only when a police superintendent declared in public that he had never known a burglar unpick a Chubb lock in his twenty-seven years' experience was public confidence restored. Hobbs's success led him to found his own locksmiths (taken over, ironically, by Chubb in the 1960s) while Mr Chubb, his pride somewhat dented, continued to lock the nation's doors for another century.

Mrs Coade's Dramatic Entrance

The attention lavished on an entrance way was always intended to indicate the level of craftsmanship inside. And creating a good impression in the eighteenth century was an all-consuming passion for those of a certain class. England then was a peaceful and prosperous place. The population was expanding and there was talk of building whole new terraces of smart town houses in Bath, London, Dublin, Cheltenham and Tunbridge Wells. The scene was set for a golden age for the house. The building boom stimulated demand for decorative stonework, for keystones, pillars and pinnacles, for caryatids and cherubs, for balusters, finials and front steps – anything, in fact, that drew attention to the house's entrance. As the quarrymen and masons fell behind with their orders a remarkable woman, Eleanor Coade, arrived on the household scene, determined, despite her gender, to make a living from this explosion in home building.

'Mrs' Coade (the title was a Georgian courtesy: Eleanor Coade never married) took over a factory opposite the Houses of Parliament at King's Arms Stairs, Narrow Lane, Lambeth, to meet the insatiable demand for every kind of architectural ornament. Before long the factory was making gate piers, fountains and figurines, mermaids and sphinxes, Medici vases, nimble water nymphs and Bacchanalian processions, which could be set so they seemed to dance along the chimney-piece. The Coade catalogues listed sculpture that could be bought by the yard and, most important of all for those who wished to make a grand entrance, there were lions designed to stand guard on either side of the door and the heads of river gods intended to be set above it, sandwiched between rusticated voussoirs.

The business had been established by Daniel Pincot two years before, but he lacked Coade's Midas touch. He struggled (and ultimately failed) to survive the building trade's prejudice against its product, artificial stone. As he put it:

The masons are decrying the material and deterring modellers from working in the manufactory; telling them they will be despised by the whole trade as forwarding a work which it is their interest to suppress ... Again, when their employers signify an inclination to use this material, they immediately cry out 'Oh Sir! Why will you have artificial stone? It is but an imitation, a mere makeshift. Is it not more to your credit to have real stone than to stick up earthenware?'


Excerpted from Nails, Noggins and Newels by Bill Laws. Copyright © 2013 Bill Laws. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction: Full House,
1. Open House,
Doors of Perception,
Mr Chubb's Scandalous Lock,
Mrs Coade's Dramatic Entrance,
An Ingenious Idea: Jefferson's Automatic Door,
Shaker Ann's Peg Rail,
An Ingenious Idea: The Therscwald,
An Ingenious Idea: The Perfect Porch,
2. House Style,
The Homely Proportions of Vitruvius,
An Ingenious Idea: The Gothic Arch,
Bungalow Taylor,
The Adam Brothers' Complete Design,
Willam Morris's Wallpaper,
Mr Minton's Tile Revolution,
An Ingenious Idea: Walton's Washable Wallpaper,
Helen Allingham's Country Style,
3. Household Essentials,
The Hand-Made Roman Tile,
Joseph Aspdin's Cement,
Thomas Whitty's Carpet,
Count Rumford's Chimney,
God's Best Boiler,
An Ingenious Idea: House Tax,
An Ingenious Idea: The Air Conditioner,
4. House Works,
Men of Glass,
The Sliding Sash,
A Question of Ascent,
An Ingenious Idea: The Disposable Window,
Mr Shanks's Flushing Loo,
An Ingenious Idea: Gilbert Smith's Klargester,
Mr Twyford's Bath,
The Great Douche of Dr Wilson and Dr Gully,
5. Power House,
William Armstrong's Hydroelectrically Powered House,
The Candle-less House,
Dame Haslett's Power Struggle,
An Ingenious Idea: The Slot Meter,
Leo Baekeland, Otto Bayer and Miracle Plastics,
An Ingenious Idea: Underfloor Heating,
The Sunshine Homes of George Cadbury,
An Ingenious Idea: The Photovoltaic Cell,
6. House Proud,
Flying Fitted Kitchens,
Keeping Time,
An Ingenious Idea: The Prefab,
The True Aga Saga,
An Ingenious Idea: Feng Shui,
Home Do-It-Yourself,
Franklin's Safety Rods,
An Ingenious Idea: The Safe House,
The Final Nail,
Further Reading,

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