The Decorative Hardware of Enoch Robinson
by Preuit Hirsch
“Boston dealers consider that the best locks in the country are the hand-made goods turned out by such firms as Enoch Robinson’s,” wrote Clarence Howard Blackall (1857-1941), the founder and first president of the Boston Architectural Club. 1 However, Enoch Robinson (1801-1888) of Boston influenced building, construction, and hardware throughout the United States. His influence changed the decorative hardware industry, and examples of his originality remain today. Blackall’s book Builder’s Hardware of 1890 was written from an architect’s point of view to educate other architects about this important subject. He advocated selecting hardware carefully not only to determine the best made and most reliable but also the most aesthetically appropriate. He explained that
“no one of the art industries is capable of so wide an aesthetic expansion or presents so varied a field for the play of individual fancy, and few have been so persistently misapplied and misunderstood.” 2
Blackall was not the only authority of the time who had high praise for Robinson’s hardware. Charles S. Damrell in A Half Century of Boston’s Building, published in 1895, wrote that Robinson’s was the oldest business of its kind in Boston and that
“The products of this concern are in demand all over the business having been so long established and the reputation which it enjoys among the trade giving it a name, which, is known all over the world, wherever the goods it handles are used.” 3
According to Damrell, Robinson supplied hardware in Boston for the Old City Hall, the Old State House, and three elegant hotels: the Parker House, Young’s Hotel, and Adams House. The Parker House (now the Omni Parker House) is one of the oldest continuously operating hotels in the country. Its meeting- and banquet-room doors still have locks, knobs, and bolts made by Robinson.
In Washington, D.C., some of Robinson’s fixtures still operate doors in the United States Treasury Building. They were ordered at various times between 1861 and 1864 for the addition to the west wing of the building. The four existing receipts refer to two other orders for hardware for the building. 4 According to these orders, Robinson supplied fifty mortise locks, thirty-six pairs of octagonal glass knobs, twelve plain knob sets, twenty-six argil knobs, and forty-eight escutcheons.
American glass collectors are familiar with Robinson’s patented glass-pressing machine and his participation in the patent infringement claim filed by the New England Glass Company of East Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1829 against the Union Glass Company of Kensington, near Philadelphia. 5 Robinson’s architectural and cabinet hardware also merits serious consideration for innovative mechanisms, artistic strength, and high quality.
Many members of Robinson’s family worked in the metal and glass industries. His cousin Obed Robinson (b. 1762) of Attleboro, Massachusetts, began as a blacksmith and made gunlocks for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Later he made clocks, jewelry, and buttons. Richard Robinson (d. 1837) and Willard Robinson (1799-1879), also cousins of Enoch, made glass and gilt buttons and built a two-story brick factory, a shop, and a rolling mill in Attleboro. They employed one hundred workers who lived around the factory in a section of town that became known as Robinsonville. In the spirit of the time they boasted about the superiority of their buttons to those made by domestic and foreign competitors. 6
Enoch Robinson’s brothers George W. (b. 1795) and Ezra (1811-1899) ran a locksmith and brass foundry business in Boston from 1832 to 1873 and also obtained patents for innovations. 7 Four of Enoch Robinson’s sons, Shepard (b. 1832), Albert M. (1841-1905), Charles (1835-1919), and Frank (1837-1899), and his nephew William (c. 1839-1900) carried on his business after his death in 1888.
Before opening his own business Enoch Robinson worked at the New England Glass Company, where he and Henry Whitney (1786-1859) patented what was possibly the first glass-pressing machine. According to Joseph N. Howe, an agent for the company, Robinson attempted new methods of pressing glass “against the ridicule of the craft, [and] succeeded in moulding a salt stand and various articles for table use.” 8
Enoch Robinson left the New England Glass Company after the company sued his brother George for breaking his contract as foreman of the pressing department. The three brothers worked briefly together on Richmond Street, after which Enoch Robinson opened his own locksmith shop at 32 Dock Square, the center of hardware manufacturing and distribution in Boston during the nineteenth century. While his brothers’ company maintained the name G. W. Robinson and Company, Enoch Robinson changed the name of his business at least four times, calling it E. Robinson and Company, Enoch and Company, Enoch and Son, and Enoch Robinson and Company. He sometimes described his business as a locksmith but most often as “locks & knobs.” 9 Although it remains unclear why Enoch Robinson started his own business, it was not because of family conflict. All three brothers lived at the same address in Boston, and they became neighbors when they moved to nearby Somerville in 1847.
In his obituary Enoch Robinson was called a man of “industrious habits, energy, and sterling integrity. Though somewhat eccentric, no man had ever a kinder heart or more generous impulses.” 10 His eccentricity is nowhere more evident than in the round house he built for himself in Somerville. 11 It is one of six built in New England in the nineteenth century that still stood in the mid-twentieth. Architectural historians have studied the house for its unique plan, plank siding, bowed windows, maritime ornament on the exterior, and French inspired decor inside. The source of the plank siding has been attributed to Orson Squire Fowler (1809-1887), a phrenologist and a champion of the octagonal house, while the shape itself has been traced to the folly built in the Desert de Retz in Chambourcy, France, in 1780 and 1781 by Francois Nicolas Henri Racine de Monville (1734-1797) in the shape of a huge, round, ruined, classical column. 12 Inside, Robinson covered his parlor walls with a French scenic paper depicting royalty in castles, gardens, and hunting scenes. The parlor doorknobs were molded glass with a white medallion at the center, sometimes bearing the image of flowers, and sometimes the silhouette of a United States president or other statesman. 13 He hung the curved doors in the library using highly decorated throw hinges with cast finials and extremely wide leaves. The knuckles extended into the room, allowing the door to clear the curved walls when opened. Five bedroom doors on the third floor had porcelain knobs each painted with different flowers or patterns. Each knob is numbered, but the numbers follow no apparent sequence. It is possible the knobs were leftover stock from his shop. 14 The only handle on the front door was a brazen dog’s head. 15
Fascinated by challenges, Enoch Robinson invented perpetual motion machines as a hobby. 16 He also obtained a patent for a windlass for raising weights. 17 With his fellow hardware manufacturer William Hall (1811-1875) he obtained patents for a lock latch and a window fastener. 18 However, most of Robinson’s patents addressed the problem of securing a doorknob to its base. The first of these, which he shared with Francis Draper and Joseph H. Lord, involved a knob fastened to a spindled base by a ferrule screwed into the socket, securing the base of the knob. 19 The knob could be glass, ivory, stone, metal, or other material and would stay in place when turning a latch, lock, or bolt. Robinson’s next patent, also with Draper and Lord, was for a method of attaching a knob to the socket by turning over the edge of the socket to grasp the bottom of the knob. This could be done either on a lathe or by heating the socket. 20 Enoch and his brother George patented a method for attaching a glass knob to a metal socket by cutting a groove around the neck of the knob and then pouring molten metal to fill the socket and the base of the knob. 21 Enoch Robinson thought this method too time consuming and expensive. In addition, air and moisture intruded when the hot metal cooled and contracted from the metal wall of the socket, allowing the decorative silver disk seen through the glass knob to oxidize. In his next patent, the socket was molded around the neck of the knob, thereby preventing the intrusion of air or moisture and allowing the manufacturer to plate the socket during the process. 22 The drawings Robinson included with his patent applications show profiles of doorknobs similar to those his company sold. These drawings help collectors identify his hardware.
The industrial revolution provoked a transition from handcraftsmanship to mechanized manufacture. Nonetheless Robinson maintained a successful firm turning out handmade products renowned not only for their reliability but also for their decorative nature. In contrast to larger hardware companies, he kept his stock low, relying on specific orders for the wide variety of hardware he offered in many styles and finishes.
Surviving invoices, a catalogue, a price list, and advertisements reveal the variety of hardware Robinson made. 23 An invoice of March 7, 1864, for the Treasury Building project indicates that he carried powder proof bank and safe locks, silver glass doorknobs, padlocks; painted, glass, mineral, wood, and argil knobs; patent door springs; blind and sash fastenings; plated and bronzed butts; French window fixtures; hooks; and door handles. His Catalogue and Price List. of Polished Brass Furniture Trimmings issued in 1888 illustrates polished brass drawer and cabinet handles, hinge plates, real hinges, curtain poles and brackets, door handles, and escutcheon plates. An undated price list refers to handles, escutcheons, plates, and hinges available in nickel-plate or gilt finishes. An advertisement placed by Robinson in Damrell’s Half Century of Boston’s Building describes him as a manufacturer and dealer in house and cabinet hardware; cut-glass knobs from French patterns; brass doorknobs and escutcheons from colonial patterns; and hinge plates and door knockers of “all the old styles.” In other words, he catered to emerging American taste without relinquishing the influence of European hardware.
Enoch Robinson left his estate to his son Albert and his daughter Ann (1829-1907) to be invested to support his wife and other daughters. He asked that the business in Boston be continued only as long as Albert judged it expedient. 24 Eventually, L.S. Hall, a former clerk and draftsman for Robinson, became the owner of his patents, machinery, and hardware. W.C. Vaughan and Company bought Hall’s shop in 1902 and later entered into a partnership with E.R. Butler & Co., which endures today. The Vaughan archive contains several drawings by Robinson, among them drawings for a colonial brass-plate hinge, colonial door trimmings, and a French window weather strip and bolt. There are also wooden patterns for hardware attributed to the Robinson shop because of their profiles and shanks.
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For their generous assistance in assembling material for this article I wish to thank Robert Adam, Rhett Butler, Maud L. Eastwood, Tom Hennessy, Dora St. Martin, and Derik Trelstad.
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Preuit Hirsch is the manager of foundation relations at the World Monuments Fund in New York City.
- Clarence H. Blackall, Builder’s Hardware: A Manual for Architects, Builders and House Furnishers (Boston, 1890), p. viii.
- Ibid., p. 279.
- Charles S. Damrell, A Half Century of Boston’s Building … (Boston, 1895), p. 483.
- The receipts are in the United States National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D. C. For more about these receipts, see the correspondence between Maud L. Eastwood and Katherine Whitney regarding a modern restoration of the Treasury Building in 1987. The letters are dated March 16, 1986, and February 4, March 9, and April 2, 1987 (archives of E.R. Butler & Co., New York City).
- See Helen McKearin, “The Case of the Pressed Glass Knob,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, vol. 15, no. 2 (August 1951), pp. 118-120; and Kenneth M. Wilson and Kirk J. Nelson, “The role of glass knobs in glassmaking and furniture,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, vol. 149, no. 5 (May 1996), pp. 750-759.
- John Daggett, A Sketch of the History of Attleborough, ed. Amelia Daggett Sheffield (Boston, 1894), pp. 349-351, 581-582.
- Their patent for a “spring bolt for door and other locks,” no. 1,626, was granted on June 10, 1840; their patent for a “Spring-Fastener for Window-Sashes,” no. 2,452, was granted on February 7, 1842; their patent for “Steering Apparatus for Vessels,” no. 2,797, was granted on September 30, 1842 (List of Patents for Inventions and Designs, Issued by. the United States, from 1790 to 1847 [Washington, D.C., 1847]).
- George S. and Helen McKearin, American Glass (Crown, New York, 1941), p. 334.
- See Boston directories for 1831-1846, 1848-1849, and 1851-1943.
- Somerville [Massachusetts] Journal, February 18, 1888.
- The round house (privately owned) still stands, although it is much in need of restoration. It was recently listed as one of the ten most endangered historic structures in Massachusetts by Preservation Mass (formerly Historic Massachusetts Incorporated).
- Walter L. Creese, “Round Houses of New England,” Old-Time New England, vol. 43, no. 4 (April-June 1953), pp. 87-88; and Derik Trelstad, “Enoch Robinson’s Round House,” (master’s thesis, Columbia University, New York, 1989).
- “The ‘Round’ House,” Boston Sunday Globe, March 8, 1903.
- This suggestion was made by Robert Adam of North Bennet Street School in Boston during a telephone conversation with me on October 16, 1997.
- “The ‘Round’ House.”
- Creese, “Round Houses of New England,” p. 87.
- This is patent no. 2,473, dated February 28, 1842 (List of Patents for Inventions and Designs).
- The lock latch is patent no. 1,995, dated March 3, 1841; and the window fastener is patent no. 2,248, dated September 11, 1841 (ibid.).
- “Ferrule-Knob for Doors, &c.,” patent no. 65, dated October 20, 1836 (ibid.).
- “Door, Commode &c. Knob,” patent no. 98, dated December 2, 1836, and antedated September 2, 1836 (ibid.).
- “Method of Attaching Glass Knobs to Metallic Sockets,” patent no. 434, dated October 20, 1837 (ibid.).
- “Improvement in the Method of Attaching Door-knobs to their Spindles,” patent no. 2,904, dated January 10, 1843 (ibid.).
- These documents are in the archives of E.R. Butler and Company.
- Will and inventory of Enoch Robinson, file no. 23592, Middlesex County Probate Court, Cambridge, Massachusetts.