Cast With Character
Do as the Victorians did and use ornamental hinges to enhance your interiors with tiny details
I was flipping through the newspaper a few weeks back when my eyes landed on a photo of door hardware that matched a rare antique hinge I'd recently admired at a Texas salvage shop. The hinge, which depicted two Japanese geishas standing on a bridge—one shaded by a parasol, the other stooped under a lantern—was cast in the late 1800s by Connecticut metalwork manufacturer Russell & Erwin.
The escutcheon plates in the picture were the same style but told a different story, with a woman ringing a bell from the balcony of a tall pagoda. My interest piqued, I read the accompanying write-up of an exhibit of late-19th-century household brass goods at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, and planned a visit.
The show had door hardware, but also lamps, plant stands, and fireplace andirons, many featuring Japanese motifs, such as swooping cranes, delicate cherry blossoms, and bamboo latticework. Designers during the American Victorian era were rather obsessed with all things Japanese after seeing porcelain vases, bronze urns, and other artifacts from that country at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, in Philadelphia.
What amazed me was that these intricately patterned objects were mass-produced in factories, rather than hand-forged in artisan shops. Cast in brass, bronze, copper, and steel near the end of the Industrial Revolution, the wares were sold in catalogs to style-conscious consumers looking to embellish their interiors.
The geisha hinge seen at Discovery Architectural Antiques in Gonzales, Texas.
The designs were born out of the Aesthetic Movement, which advocated "art for art's sake," not as a commentary on society. Its influence on Americans' day-to-day lives is perhaps most strikingly evident in those beautiful yet utilitarian door hinges. And even though most of the late-19th-century hinges at architectural salvage yards today—except for that Russell & Erwin one with the geishas—wouldn't merit inclusion in a museum exhibit, they are no less astounding for the level of detail applied to something so seemingly insignificant: I mean, you don't even see the hinge leaves when the door is closed. What you do see, however, is the center barrel in which the hinge pin is inserted to hold the leaves together. The barrel on the geisha hinge, for instance, bore a peacock-feather motif. But I have seen other, far simpler hinges with meandering vines, flowers, leaves, and geometric patterns along their spines. Even the pins were decorated, with tips shaped like cannonballs or church steeples.
The relative affordability of these more common hinges, which typically run $15 to $30 apiece—compared with up to $500 for a museum-worthy one—makes them popular with house-part recyclers like me. They are great for linking together old shutters for a folding screen (see how, below) or for hinging the top of a storage trunk or writing desk. Then there's always their obvious usefulness in hanging doors. Such a practical application may seem like a bit of a waste of such small works of art, but those old Aesthetes would be proud to know their attention to tiny details hasn't been lost on modern-day homeowners.
Tip: Get corroded hinge leaves moving freely on their center pin by dousing the hinge with WD-40, which loosens the bond between the metal and any rust.