Before our modern era of passwords, automated security and even facial recognition software, how would a person secure their personal valuables? The predecessors to modern safes may have looked and functioned quite differently, but they were state of the art for their time. Today, these antique safes and strongboxes are still among the most complex, secure and fascinating objects ever created. Unlike modern safes that are mass produced and have lost the individuality and exclusivity that their predecessors possessed, antique safes are each unique puzzles that contain the promise of hidden treasures.
History of Antique Safes
The first safe known to history was found in the tomb of Ramesses II, Pharaoh of Egypt. Dating back to the 13th century BC, this safe was made of wood and had a locking system comprised of movable pins that dropped into holes resembling today’s pin tumbler locks. Other ancient cultures utilized novel locking devices, as well. Ancient Rome had a bustling and robust commerce economy, and merchants needed a means by which to protect their goods and earnings from being stolen. This, in addition to advances in metallurgy techniques, lead the Romans to invent a fixed-lug locking system, and they also utilized different shaped and sized notches that required unique keys for added security. However, these early locks were often easily damaged or picked.
Centuries later, nobles in medieval Europe stored their valuables in hardwood boxes wrapped in iron fittings, adding extra strength and durability, but they were still not impenetrable and certainly not fire proof. As in so many other areas, it was the Renaissance age that saw true innovation in the science of security, and like other Renaissance advances, its epicenter was located in Italy. From the 14th to the 16th centuries, Italy was a hub of economic and cultural activity. Flourishing trade in cities like Milan, Venice and Florence made many merchants extremely wealthy, and a need for solid, large security containers emerged.
Weighing hundreds of pounds, this example of 16th-century Italian floor safe is enveloped with thick iron plates, iron strappings and rivets around a fitted oak interior, making it far closer to indestructible than previous strong boxes. It also has a three-key locking system, and each of the three original iron keys are different, meaning three partners would have to be present to open it. The front of the safe features a separate iron strap that could be locked in place and was used to cover the keyholes to make it even more difficult to break into.
Many of the earliest lock boxes and safes were used by churches within their sacristies to protect sacred vessels, parish records and other valuables. There were also used in lieu of banks by wealthy individuals, merchants and businessmen to store money, jewelry and important documents. Safes using multiple, unique keys were extremely useful for business partners because it meant that if each partner possessed a different key, it would require everyone’s presence to unlock the safe, thus keeping everyone honest.
Moving into the 19th century, safes came into increasingly higher demand. Industry was booming in Europe, especially in England, and improved transportation meant that trade expanded throughout the continent. These factors led to a surplus of capital among both institutions and individuals, requiring a means by which to protect those assets. Transporting goods by train, carriage or ship was common, but there were potential losses from theft, fire and bad weather to consider. Safes of the period, although very heavy, were portable and often traveled with businessmen on these journeys to keep cash and their most valuable goods safe.
Locking Mechanisms and Complexity
The effectiveness of both modern and antique safes is inextricably linked to the complexity of their locking mechanisms. Early safe manufacturers were extremely skilled in creating new and inventive ways to secure valuables. Hidden keyholes, multiple keys, tricky combinations and other secrets are a common theme amongst antique safes.
One of the most fascinating aspects of these antique floor safes is the fact that many reveal no hints on how to access their interior based on their exteriors. This 17th-century hobnail safe, for instance, requires a special pointed key to press an inconspicuous button to release latch doors on the exterior — only then would the hidden keyholes be revealed. After that, one must know the precise way, in an almost puzzle-like fashion, in which to manipulate the unique keys to successfully gain access to the safe's contents. Other similar hobnail safes require the user to press a series of the decorative hobnails to reveal the keyholes, and no two were alike.
Exceptional in both artistry and craftsmanship, this Belgian safe, made circa 1875, is an important precursor to the modern combination lock, but also an excellent example of the safe as decorative object. Built of cast-iron and designed to inspire confidence in its strength and security, the exterior features heavy metal ornamentation, including highly detailed grotesque masks. Pulling open the central false drawer exposes a hidden keyhole and a state-of-the-art series of four letter dials that must be set to the correct code in order to insert a key. When the key is inserted and turned, the heavy door can then be opened to reveal the safe’s interior. Once inside, another key grants access to a secret compartment within.
The interior of the door highlights the complex and beautifully made mechanisms of the safe. It was crafted by the firm of L. Duvilers, which was considered a leader in the field of lock mechanics and earned many medals at the international expositions of the mid-19th century. This piece represents the incredible safe-making legacy of the firm, which brought together complex mechanisms, highly secure materials, remarkable artistry and ingenious design.