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Keys as Symbols






Keys

Civilised man is preoccupied with securing possessions. The key is both the means and the symbol, granting peace of mind to pursue the rest of life’s demands.

Ilco
Front cover of the 1986 Ilco key blank catalogue. The representation of keys by the postal authorities is another indicator of how impotant is the need in securing material possessions as well as enlightenment.

There are many interesting design features, some practical, some meaningfull, at all levels from the locks used on furniture to the highly sophisticated mechanisms for safes and strong-rooms and some that are total symbolic with no actual physical locking function.

The key is the answer to the puzzle set by the maker of a lock. The key has even evolved into a powerful symbol representing the route as well as safekeeping of the things that are dearest to us.

One way of describing a key is that it gives the owner ‘privileged access’ or ‘selective access’. In another context keys, since time immemorial, has been adopted as symbols or motifs to indicate a privileged access at another level. Take for instance the crossed keys of St. Peter, one silver and the other gold, representing the keys to the gates or kingdom of heaven, or to put it another way, keys that give ‘privileged access’ via a particular body of learning.

Mastership keys are an example of the locksmith’s rite of passage. The apprentice locksmith would demonstrate his skills and abilities, by producing a key and / or lock embodying all his skills in working metal, on nearing the completion of his term to submit to his guild.

Keys as a right of passage such as reaching adulthood are part of the folklore in many cultures. Traditionally when one reached a certain age, 18 today in the UK and 21 before 1970, a key was part of the ceremony. A silver key was the traditional metal for birth, coming of age and wedding tokens whereas gold was given for achievement, long service and retirement. Very often the symbolic key also had a dual purpose in that it also concealed a corkscrew as the proceedings also involved a toast.

One key with a very tangible link is the long service / retirement award given to American Secret Service agents. The American Secret Service was initially formed in 1865 as part of the Treasury department to combat counterfeit currency, however the scope was increased to a dual role of protecting the President, the presidents family, past presidents and visiting heads of state. Sargent and Greenleaf, under Harry Miller, produced these ‘Gold Keys’. S&G still had the facilities, as early time locks were gold plated. A key of gold symbolised both the protection of the ‘Treasury’s assets, i.e. the gold reserves and the acknowledged dedication and long service by ‘agents’. These keys were highly coveted by the recipients.

Long serving US Secret Service Agents would recieve this prestigious gold key on retirement.
One of the particularly fine 'Mastership' keys originaly from the Henrick Pankoffer collection and now part of the Heritage Collection.

Josiah Pakes, in their mid 1920's catalogue, catered to a demand by providing a range of presentation keys in various qualities.

A selection of symbolic corkscrew keys, of various ages, still considered essential at coming of age celebrations, weddings and other achievement ceremonies.

The rare Yale Double Tresuary key. This iconic key represents both the last and best of the American key operated bank locks.

The American Secret Service was formed at about the same time as Linus Yale jr. invented what was to become know as the ‘Double Treasury’ bank lock. At that time key locks for ordinary safes were on the decline in favour of keyless combination locks. However the Treasury Department adopted Yale’s lock with its many ingenious and imaginative features. Even the key was unique. The bit was housed at the end of the shaft in a holder. As the shaft of the key was rotated the bit was carried into the lock, where it acted on the mechanism well away from the key hole. Yale incorporated what he described as a disconcerter, a device to prevent any chance of reading, feeling or otherwise determining the combination. Today the Yale Treasury bank lock key is considered iconic by many as the unsurpassed pinnacle of American ingenuity for key operated mechanical locks. Very few keys are known to exist and even fewer locks.
Another class of key usually referred to as ‘mystery keys’, and which contained symbolism, were those that were working keys in there own right. Either the bit was formed usually with wards, into a monogram or other symbol, or the bow contained elements that represented some aspect of the owner’s purpose. The example here is believed to contain both. The bit, albeit slightly damaged, possibly resolves into the letter ‘M’. However it’s the bow that is most interesting. One side depicts a full face, whilst the other has three small symbols, a ladybird or ladybug, an ant and a wizard. Early English folklore suggests, but by no means proven, that the wizard representing or indicating knowledge or wisdom, a ladybug, suggesting harmony, peace, wellbeing and finally a worker ant, which could mean hard work for the benefit of the community as a whole. The full face could indicate the moon. A society whose principals were symbolised in this way, and is manifest in the key, would be doubly empowering and meaningful for the rank and file – the privileged entry aspect being celebrated perhaps at the full moon. This connection has not been proven with this particular key but it does demonstrate the mind set from Elizabethan times. Another form of mystery key incorporated a secret compartment for messages.

There are many other forms of dual-purpose keys produced over the centuries, some practical, others with a novel or even eccentric purpose. Keys with a hammerhead used by distillers and cellarmen to tap barrels to determine the level of the contents. Cigar cutter keys, pipe keys used in ceremonial capacity at guild meetings, keys which also incorporate a seal, even keys which double as a weapon like dagger and pistol keys.

With all these associations and at so many levels its no wonder that there are so many enthusiastic key collectors.
A close up of the three symbols, the ladybug, the wizard and the ant.

An example of a mystery key, full of symbolism.

And on the otherside a rather full face - what does it all mean?

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