Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Corbin key

Last week I returned to the Puget Sound region with Miss V in tow.  She has mixed feelings about coming back here, which is understandable since, for her, it means school is just around the corner.  But we thought we might have a little fun before high school madness commenced in earnest, so we went down to Pike Place Market.

The Market is one of those odd and mystical places that, no matter how many times you visit or how thoroughly you think you've explored it, always seems to have something new for you to find.  This time we turned a corner and made our way into a wonderful antique shop, filled with precious stone rings and snake necklaces, dining tables and chairs, signs advertising long-vanished products, a small suit of armor, and various other secondhand treasures.  It's one of those places that don't look very impressive when you first come in, but then as you begin to explore the twists and turns filled with items, you find they go on, and on, and on...

On one chest of drawers in what I estimate was the middle of the store, I found a shallow white dish.  It was full of old keys.

It occurred to me that a key like this one may well be the ultimate artifact.  We all know what it's for -- to lock and unlock something -- and this particular helpful little key further tells us it was manufactured in New Britain, Connecticut.  A few minutes of Internet spelunking turn up clues suggesting that it was made in the 1920s.  But who owned it?  What was it used for?  Was it perhaps the key to a house or a hotel room?  Radio silence.

And the funny thing is, the very commonness of this key is what gives it its current cachet of mystery.  P&F Corbin mass-produced gobs of keys just like this one.  Nobody bothered to track its trajectory once it left the factory in New Britain; it could have gone anywhere, could have been owned by anyone.  Maybe its companion lock was destroyed in a hotel fire in 1943; maybe there was a home break-in and the homeowner changed the old locks; maybe there's still a rickety old toolshed behind a farmhouse in Ohio that nobody uses any more because the door's locked, and Grandpa lost the key years ago.  This key could have been used by Chicago mobsters or brand-new husbands, by stern teachers or secretive librarians, by a mousy accountant who liked to go out water-skiing on weekends or a modern-day Lucrezia Borgia hiding the remains of her latest poisoning job in the cellar.

You understand, I had to buy it.

There's something else worth noting about this key.  It comes from an era, or at least from a mindset, that thought about manufactured items very differently.  This key's design is pointlessly artistic.  There's no practicality in the graceful foliage climbing up each side of the key, framing the proudly-serifed capitals of the company name.  There's no purpose to the semicircular bead decoration above the hole for the keyring.  There's no need for this kind of beauty in everyday things -- until you see this key and realize how much of this kind of beauty is missing from modern life, and hunger for it.


Pete Olavarria said...

We bought a 1925 Mediterranean Reviival recently and this type of key opens our front door. The key is so beautiful I want to frame it in a little shadow box for constant display. My husband and I really enjoyed your writing style. So descriptive of a sweet little key. Thank you. Donna O.

Soozcat said...

Thank you so much for your kind words, Donna, and for stopping by the blog. Hope you're thoroughly enjoying your new home!

Dawn Erekson said...

Hi, does yours have a serial number on it? Thanks for the read. I enjoyed it enormously!

Soozcat said...

Hi, Dawn! Thanks for coming by. Yes, mine does have a serial number on the flip side.

Anonymous said...

Just bought a key exactly like yours yesterday at my local antique mall. I always have the same kind of wonderings about old things like you expressed here....what was the life of this simple object ? I have placed mine on a brass colored chain it now hangs around my neck. It has found a new home !