Railroad Padlocks, Skeleton Keys, and Steampunk!

Valuable Bronze and Brass Hardware with Ironic Beauty…

The best treasure found in the old cistern was this set of three brass padlocks. Antique padlocks provide an active field of collecting; in fact, there are over 50,000 listings for antique padlocks in the WorthPoint Worthopedia!

My friend Tim gave me a call last month, with news of a strange discovery in the dirt floor basement of his 1700’s Cape. He knew I was an antique bottle digger, and that I dug in old farm dump sites, wells, and even abandoned outhouses here in New England, so this discovery was right up my alley.

He hadn’t lived there long, but he got a metal detector and decided to see if he could come up with any old coins in the dirt floor of the cellar.  He found a few small items, then got a big hit.  He dug down with a trowel, and hit solid metal.  He dug around it, and eventually was able to wrestle out an old metal bucket. He had hoped it was buried gold, but such is life.

For an “urban archeologist,” a hole like this can be a treasure trove of very random items that stay preserved and hidden for generations.

Around this buried bucket though, was a mixture of ash, limestone chunks, and rusty chunks of old trash or something.  The more he dug, the more it loosened up, until he began to expose a circular rock foundation! He had uncovered an indoor water cistern or well that the first inhabitants of the house would have dug so they would have access to fresh water, 12 months out of the year.  At some point, the home owners stopped using the well, and as often happened with old wells and outhouses, these holes and pits were filled in with trash, ash, rock, or whatever fill was at their disposal.  And for “urban archeologists” like me, they can be a treasure trove of very random items that stay preserved and hidden for generations.

Tim found a few bottles from the late 1890s–fairly common, clear glass druggist bottles. But the best treasures he has found so far are the 3 brass padlocks in the photo at the top of the article.

If you search around you will find that antique padlocks provide an active field of collecting. Most are bronze or brass, and the higher valued locks are larger, heavier locks, with embossed company markings, or even better, an advertising logo for another product or company, especially railroad lines. Heavy round padlocks were used to lock the sliding boxcar doors you see in the old western movies, and many had elaborate and boastful lettering and designs.

This fine lock is highly desirable with its classic look and markings for The East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad. It sold for $1400 in 2007.

There were several ways padlocks were used, but most often to lock steamer trunks, barn doors, foot lockers, home safes, and other latched doors needed for personal security. The values of these early padlocks today are often determined by the rarity of the style of lock, or the design of its locking mechanism. Sometimes, a complex design turned out to be faulty, or too expensive to manufacture, so they were only made for a couple of years. Of course this makes them rarer and more desirable locks  for modern day collectors of lock history.

This beautiful rare Western Europe 17th century iron padlock sold for $650 in 2017.

Like many collectible antiques, two identical locks may have different values because the condition of one is better, or because the “patina” on one is more desirable.  Some early bronze locks are weathered and aged with a patina that is hard to describe unless you are holding it in your hand.

This is a good example of how patina enhances the eye appeal of an antique padlock. This fabulous C. Rave barrel key padlock sold in 2017 for almost $600!

Any padlock will be worth much more if it is in working order and has its original key.  Old padlocks that are found in old dump sites are normally locked closed (the key was lost, that’s why  they were thrown away).  A separate but related collectable, of course, is brass skeleton keys that unlocked these padlocks, but also were used in winding clocks. Most people who collect antique keys do it because it is fun and fascinating. Even the rarest keys have a low ceiling in terms of value. But they are fun to collect, and especially fun to display !

Antique keys are fun to collect and fun to display! This lot of antique keys sold for $57 in 2017.

If you’re a flea marketer, yard saler, or buyer at local small auctions, it’s good to be aware of items that might look like junk, but actually fall into the category of “steampunk.”  Steampunk art has been around for quite a while. It is that hybrid funky combination of Industrial Age fixtures,  Jules Verne’s age Sci-Fi, and a weird morbid gothic black comedy. I’m not sure if there’s a dictionary definition for it that has been settled upon, but I’ll go with that.  For some people it’s an expression of fashion, for others it feeds their art.  A lot of it is very subjective, but it has to be considered one of the most interesting things that’s happened to the antiques world in a long time.

Fantasy metal padlock in steampunk style.

For a bottle dump digger, relic hunter, and scuba diver like me, it has changed what types of things I’ll bring home from my hunt.  Any padlock, or skeleton key has a decorative arts value in the world of steampunk, not to mention beaver traps, steel shackles, old bronze gears, clock parts, old musical instruments parts, and bronze faucet handles. And that list goes on and on. If you’re hoarding this stuff in your garage though, be pre-warned, as it’s much easier to find than it is to sell; however, if you can keep this odd subset of collecting in your “fun” department, it’s a new field that has an interesting future!

Steampunk art using clock gears.

The value of these wild pieces of art are in the eye of the beholder.   I love them, and if I had lots of disposable income, I’d pay a good chunk of money for these steampunk objects of Altered Art using antique padlocks, keys, and gears.


Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at askus@hepburnandcoantiques.com.

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