If you’re famous, you might be given the key to a city, and if you’re in love, someone might have found the key to your heart. Then again, if you’re a chemist you might become famous by finding a key ingredient.
The humble key opens locks of course, but the word key, it seems, has become a handy metaphor as well. My interest in keys stems from childhood when my dad frequently managed estates. Often he found mysterious keys without the locks to go with them. Those keys found their way into my key collection. I had quite a horde of all kinds of keys that I kept in a flower pot. Unfortunately I’ve lost them somewhere on the journey of my life. However, my fascination with keys remains.
Skeleton keys have been stripped down to the bone and thus the reason for their creepy name. There is only one remaining bit at the tip of the barrel (hollow) or shank (solid).
A skeleton key could open most of the doors inside my grandfather’s house. In fact, most houses built in the 1940’s have mortise locks that respond to a skeleton key. In my grandfather’s house, the attic door, with its big square, metal lock and large keyhole, easily opened with a skeleton key. The turning of the key revealed a winding stairway behind the door; topped by a trove of attic treasures to explore. This explains, in part, the magic I attribute to the skeleton key.
Magical thinking about keys began in the Middle Ages when keys and locks were made of iron. Many believed evil spirits might find their way into dwellings or religious buildings through keyholes, but that iron keys and locks had the power to repel these demons.
made in the form of a cross could cure boils. In Europe large, iron keys for church doors usually had a cross imprinted somewhere on them. (above) These keys were thought to be powerful enough to cure whopping cough and other ills of children.
“The key for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is believed to be at least 500 years old. It is still used daily, and is held by an ancient Muslim family in Jerusalem. The family has held this position since 1244, and the key may be that old.”* (above)
I was surprised to realize the considerable variety of keys, some of which follow: prison keys, church keys, clock keys, railroad keys (small brass ones), skeleton keys, trunk keys, desk keys, briefcase keys, suitcase keys, diary keys, house keys, car keys, file cabinet keys, keepsake box keys, padlock keys, jewelry box keys, cedar chest keys, music box keys, toy winding keys, skate keys and on and on and on. You can probably think of many more.
If you’re intrigued enough to want to know more about keys, consult the Internet links below. The book Keys – Their History and Collection by Eric Monk, published by Shire Publications will help in identifying keys you might find in antique stores and also in estimating their value.