Whether seen at things like flea markets or witnessed in entertainment, most people know the look of old style keys—iconic images from the romantic age. These keys and their locks were designed centuries ago and were then the most secure known. Skeleton keys were designed to be master keys to handle many of these locks at once, requiring fewer individual keys. Skeleton keys are more than just antiques, and similar objects are still in use today.
Antique Skeleton Keys
Antique skeleton keys typically had a simple set of teeth called a bit, and a rounded bow used to both hold the key and also attach it to a key ring. Due to the wide use of very basic locks, when a simple skeleton bit is inserted into the lock, it would be enough to open it and all similar locks universally even though it was not specifically a key for that lock. Because of the popularity of early lock types and the technology of the time, these master keys became popular. There is nothing special about skeleton keys, however, as many other items could also open these locks if shaped similarly to a common bit.
Master keys are the skeleton key of modern physical locks, and because of their versatility, they are capable of opening any lock in a series or specific location. Many locksmiths, homeowners and business owners with multiple locks use master keys to some extent. Although the historical term of skeleton key isn't completely accurate for these modern keys, the fact that a single key opens multiple locks is similar enough to apply the term.
Skeleton keys were designed centuries ago to open warded lock types. Warded locks are simple systems with a set of movable plates inside. When a properly shaped key bit was used, the plates would push aside to release the lock. Skeleton keys were also simple, with generic bits capable of opening many different locks regardless of the maker and key bit style. The use of ward locks declined in the late 1800s, but some use continued into the 20th century. The development of more secure locking mechanisms led to the disposal of the old locks and keys.
Skeleton keys came into fashion at a time when ornamental metal work was very popular. For this reason, many antique skeleton keys have very elaborate end bows with ornamental designs and decorative flourishes. Designs included the use of artistic leaves, lattices, crests, seals and fleur-de-lis. Today, many old skeleton keys are used as decorative pieces as wall ornaments or adapted into furniture like drawer pulls.
Modern skeleton keys have emerged for the technical age. Key cards, like the types used in hotels, are in wide spread use. Maids in hotels often have passkeys to all guest room, as do most maintenance workers. In business, these all-access keys are handled similarly with access to certain areas available to select cardholders, but not all. Owners and executives often have complete access to all locks.