Skeleton Keys

A few weeks ago I decided to fix all the indoor locks in my apartment. I live in a Heritage Hill-style house that’s about 115 years old and there are parts of the interior (especially the gorgeous curved-glass windows in the living and dining rooms) that are still original.

Several of the interior doors, complete with cartridge lock that requires a skeleton key, are also original, but over the years the bolts had been painted over and the locks themselves don’t appear to have been used in decades. So, I fixed them. I removed each cartridge from the door frame, opened it up, and scraped away the paint. I purchased a few skeleton keys from Home Depot and *presto* — most of the interior doors now properly lock.

What amazed me about the whole experience was the elegance of the internal mechanisms. The locks predate the pin-and-tumbler style that became popular in the United States during the 1940s. The skeleton lock was simple to operate, easy to clean and durable. How many pin-and-tumbler locks that are 70 years old still function adequately?

This story probably admits to many different lessons — about the virtue of simplicity, the value of old-fashioned durability, etc. — but what struck me the most was that I could fix this lock on my own with no external assistance (barring, of course, the fabrication of a broken part). How many of us could fix a broken lock today? How many of us would bother trying?

As the tools around us become more complicated, the average person loses the ability to single-handedly control and maintain his environment. In the mid 1990s I used to build my own computers from the component pieces; today, I’d be lost. A century ago, any homeowner could repair his own locks; today, a locksmith must do it.

There are definite security advantages to pin-and-tumbler locks compared to the old skeleton locks. But we must recall that not all that is new is necessarily better in all respects.