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Cultural History : Museum Keeps Lock and Key on Exhibit

August 23, 1987|BARBARA MAYER | Associated Press

What could be more ordinary than a key? Each of these prosaic devices, anonymously stamped out by the thousands, looks pretty much like another of the same type.

But a current exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Design in New York, reveals an unexpectedly rich decorative and cultural history for keys and locks, which are believed to have originated many centuries ago in the Middle East, probably to safeguard grain.

While it may not be a first, this showing of about 500 keys, locks and related devices is believed to be one of the most inclusive.

"It offers a glimpse into nearly 2,000 years of history," said David McFadden, the museum's decorative-arts curator and curator for the exhibition, which runs through Oct. 18.

Some Items on Loan

"I guarantee that those who see it will look at their own door key rather differently. They will realize it is part of a long tradition," he said.

The exhibition has been assembled from the museum's collection and loans from private collectors and institutions. The emphasis is on rare, ornate locks and keys of the past.

But the exhibit proves that ingenuity continues today by showing one of the newest electronic devices, a system in which a sensor reads fingerprints, matches them with a recorded image and then admits or bars the petitioner.

According to McFadden, the exhibition's design importance is that it compares and contrasts periods and styles and shows how an era's overall style affected something as practical and commonplace as keys.

For example, the rococo key designs of the 18th Century, with their asymmetrical shells and scrolls inspired by organic shapes, employ the same design vocabulary found in 18th-Century architecture, porcelain and silver.

According to Bert Spilker--a well-known collector who assisted in the exhibit's organization, lent some of his prized examples and wrote the exhibition catalog essay--the first locks and keys were made of wood and crafted by carpenters.

Made of Metal

By the days of the Roman Empire, the craft was taken over by metalsmiths. That was good for history since the early wooden keys have fallen victim to decay, while a number of the keys made of metal in the last 2,000 years have survived.

Typically, regardless of the century in which they were made, keys consist of three parts: the handle (usually round) for grasping, the shaft and the bit that is inserted into the lock.

Mass production of keys began in the 19th Century; before that blacksmiths often made keys.

As more people moved into cities and life took on a more anonymous cast than in small towns and rural areas, the need for keys grew. Rising crime and the growth of banking increased the need for security devices and stimulated lock making. Before 1700, most locks were so easy to pick that people used to camouflage them, often adding false locks to throw thieves off the trail.

By the 19th Century, the era of security was in full sway. In England, where there were many technical advances, the Chubb Co., for example, advertised one lock as unpickable.

But at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851, an American locksmith, Alfred C. Hobbs, succeeded in publicly picking the Chubb lock and received a substantial cash prize for doing so, Spilker said.

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