Many times people will visit the shop and comment that they have–or had–“brown marble” doorknobs in a historic home at some time in the past. Those knobs were likely brown “mineral” knobs, often referred to as Bennington knobs. Yes, there was a brown glazed ceramic ware made in Bennington, VT, and yes, that glazed ware resembles the doorknobs we’re discussing, but true “Bennington” doorknobs are few and far between. They are defined by the Antique Doorknob Collectors of America as those antique knobs that have a cream body, with one of two different glazes applied. Those with the Rockingham glaze had it applied by “spattering, dripping, sponging or brushing in an uneven manner, allowing the cream colored body to remain exposed to a greater or lesser degree”. The other method, perfected in 1849, was the Flint enamel glaze. This method used metallic salts fired on over a translucent under-glaze to achieve the richly mingled colors.
Well, if it’s not a true Bennington knob, what is it? Most such vintage knobs will be “mineral” knobs, using clays of different colors glazed with what was known as a simple “Albany slip” glaze. The clays found around the Albany NY area were a natural glacial clay with a high iron content, and were used extensively in the early 1800s pottery industry. The “Albany slip” glaze would enhance the color of the material and sealed the rough body texture caused by the drying clays after they were formed to their desired shape. Another glazing method used a clear glaze of composed mainly of feldspar and flint, and this would permit the marble-like swirls of the various clays used in the knob body to show through. So it is easy to mistake this naturally derived product for genuine marble.
The metal shank of these knobs, usually of cast iron, was secured by a pool of molten lead that cooled to grip the ridges of the recess formed in the clay. This recess had ridges and shallow holes, the better to absorb a bit more of the molten metal and grip the iron shank more securely. Note the picture of the un-glazed knob we have in the shop, showing the core of a knob before the lead was poured and the knob shank was inserted.
The humble “mineral” doorknobs had a long history and were still appearing the hardware distributor’s catalogs into the 1920s and early 1930s. These antique knobs continue to be popular today, not only for homes with a “country” theme, but for anyplace where a striking yet simple doorknob is desired. While it is rumored that lifestyle guru Martha Stewart ignited the present day passion for these knobs, to date we have never found that print article to back this theory up. For whatever reason, the humble “brown knobs” have rightly found a place in today’s popular taste.