Building a Better Mortise Lock: The Curious Case of Chicago Hardware Company


 by Xavier Blaine, Hardware Detective

I’m fond of telling customers that I would never term anything I work with standard. I’m usually being honest and mention it in an effort to dissuade someone from buying a set of antique Eastlake styled doorplates to install on their new pre-cut door, or to save them the exasperation of trying to fit into their current rosette a replacement knob with a shank that is just too large. The truth is that a lot of old hardware made by familiar companies like Corbin, Russell and Erwin and Reading is mostly interchangeable. They all utilized the door hardware system we’re so familiar with of knobs that mount onto a spindle with a set screw and feed through a mortise lock to activate the latch when turned. Those companies were very successful at getting us to buy into this system as well, probably because their products were just like every other company’s products and home builders knew what to expect. But it was this same culture of manufacturing conformity built around established architectural styles that ironically gave birth to unique and innovative adaptations in door hardware.

In 1878, a new means of opening doors was patented by Milton and Sidney Niles and manufactured by the Chicago Hardware Company. When installed on a door, the "Niles Patent" locks and doorknobs seem no different than their competitors’ products. All of the major neo-classical motifs can be found in the escutcheon designs, the dead bolt is thrown with a key and turning the knob left or right operates the latch. The true innovation of the Niles system is actually in the installation. The knob was designed with an extra long shank that fits directly and securely into the mortise lock, each knob activating the latch independently of the other. As advertisements of the era for Chicago Hardware exclaimed, the Niles knobs and locks were always perfectly adjusted. They effectively eliminated set screws and the washers required to adjust the fit of the doorknobs in the escutcheon plate. With the advent of the Niles patent, it was said, one need never have to worry about jiggling handles, door thicknesses and stripped screws ever again. The really interesting thing about these advertisements is that they are absolutely right. I’ve handled these parts, worked on them, tested them out, and honestly believe in the virtues of Niles door hardware. The Chicago Hardware Co. simply built a better mortise lock.

Now this begs a question that anyone restoring a home with Niles hardware has likely already asked: why is this hardware so rare? It would seem that despite their obvious benefits, Niles locks and knobs were never all that popular. This is odd, because they were not an unsuccessful company and their products were well regarded by architectural critics. But if we consider the colossal amount of home building during the late 19th century and that most builders were using the standard door hardware system, we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of Niles Patent hardware still in existence even if it is more efficient. When the inventors of the Niles lock left the business to pursue other ventures, the Chicago Hardware Company was bought by the Barrows Lock Company, whose line of hardware was more traditional and more or less interchangeable with every other hardware manufacturer.




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