Keys have long represented mystery, possibility and power, symbolising new beginnings and hidden secrets – think Pandora’s Box, Janus (the Roman God of doorways and fresh starts, who is often portrayed with a key), and the Apostle Peter who, in Christian tradition, holds the key to Heaven. Keys can convey power, too. They still feature on 21st birthday cards as a symbol of the key to adult life, and, in the past, having ‘the keys to the city’ meant you could come and go freely as you pleased. Even the multiple meanings of the word ‘key’ suggest freedom and knowledge – for example, we search for the ‘key’ to finding happiness, or use the ‘key’ to a map, which magically unlocks coded information.
My love of keys began as a child, reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, The Secret Garden, in which the lead character Mary is led to a mysterious buried key by a friendly robin. I was hooked and have sought out old keys ever since.
Growing up in an era with modern doors that have Yale locks and boring stainless steel keys means ornate, antique ones cast something of a spell, conjuring up intrigue and romance; What doors did they open in the past? What secrets did they hide?
Now, I’m no hipster, but it has come to my attention that the ‘youth of today’ are fans of old keys, too; Cool craft website Etsy is awash with Steampunk-style, on-trend, vintage ‘key-to-my-heart’ necklaces and ‘slebs’ such as Taylor Swift have been papped proudly wearing this symbol of fashion. Apparently, Johnny Depp has a gothic, skeleton key tattoo. ‘Tis a trend, friends.
As home accessories, larger keys work well as paper weights, or hung on nails as wall art. I recently met a vintage key collector in France who has amassed an amazing selection, which looked stunning displayed simply on a white-washed wall.
Recent, 19th century keys are plentiful and generally cheap to buy at antiques fairs. Smaller ones can be found for around £1, while larger, chunkier ones fetch up to £10. Expect to rummage through tins or boxes to find the prettiest. They make romantic wedding decorations, tied with a ribbon and a luggage label stamped with the names of the bride and groom.
Incidentally, I’m equally obsessed with old doors and locks, especially the ones with rusty keyholes where you can clearly see the shape of the key bit required. I can’t pass one without photographing it. If the door is ancient with beautiful, aged wood, old nails and an air of mystery, so much the better. It could lead to a secret garden – or a cleaner’s storage cupboard. You’ll never know.