Lock It or Lose It

Lock It or Lose It

Treasure Chest
My box was similar to this one, although the fittings were much fancier, and the padlock matched the other hardware.

When I was a child, our family took a trip that included a day at Yellowstone National Park. At some point during that trip, we went into a souvenir shop, and I was given a small stipend to spend. After much contemplation over the options within my budget, I purchased a small cedar wood box; a miniature chest with shiny golden fittings on a shiny shellac finish secured by a simple brass padlock. As a middle member of a large family, this acquisition held the promise of privacy for whatever childish treasures I could squirrel away into it. I find it curious that of all the shiny objects in that shop, this box was the one that caught my fancy.

This need for privacy and security is an innate part of the human condition; manifesting in early childhood and ingrained in varying degrees by adulthood. I remember the first time I watched the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and the horror I felt as Mrs. Bennet snatched a letter addressed to Jane right out of her hands before she had even read it. It doesn’t happen that way in the book, thankfully, although Jane is compelled to read it aloud to the family. I later learned that in that era, the sharing of letters within a household and among friends was typical and expected.

Bottom left corner – it’s a blur, but that’s Mrs. Bennet’s hand reaching in for the snatch.

Being a rather private person myself, I became curious about where personal boundaries extended in the culture of Regency England. The concept of private life was still a fairly new idea – one that historians say began in England, and changes in architecture that introduced rooms where people could withdraw and find solitude. Social class obviously established this to a large degree, but I was astounded to discover additional realities of the era. It was a complex time with complex social rules—particularly where it relates to personal property and personal space. Essentially, if an item was of any value, it was locked up or at least hidden. Theft of items that were not secured in some way was considered less serious than items taken that were under lock and key.

The lowliest of servants would—if they could afford to do so—own a locking box of some kind in which they would put whatever treasures they owned. It may be as simple as a silver spoon or thimble, but locked in their box, it was off limits, for the boundary had been established. Thieves used this to their advantage. If they could get their stolen goods into a locked box, it was much harder to prove that they had stolen anything since they enjoyed the same protection of privacy as honest persons.

In privileged homes, the silver, the liquor, the tea, coffee and sugar, were all locked up and accessed only by the holder of the keys. Have you ever wondered why this was deemed necessary if the servants were all considered trustworthy? Even if the servants were all honest and above stealing from their master or each other, during the daytime, there were doors left unlocked. Most commonly there was a service entrance for deliveries and the comings and goings of those employed within the house. The laws related to daytime breaches of security were different than the laws that went into effect when the house was locked up, for those laws included the act of breaking.

The number of people passing in and out of rooms to clean, to traverse the house to get to a destination room, etc. created a need for ways to secure items from those who had access to the rooms they were kept in. For the wealthy, this need was met by elite cabinetmakers who crafted elaborate desks, tables and dressers with locking mechanisms and secret compartments such as the French mechanical table shown in this video from the Getty Museum.

The process of locking up the house for the night was a ritual that was meant to keep people out and also keep those within confined to their assigned space. Past generations had put servants sleeping in living spaces like drawing rooms at night, but the evolution of architecture during the Georgian era established rooms in the attics or even a separate annex for the servants. In many houses, they were locked in their rooms for the night, as were lodgers and tenants in boarding houses. Shutters were closed and outer doors and often even the windows were barred to prevent entry. The burden of proving that a burglar had broken in was contingent on establishing a solid perimeter that prevented him from doing so.

The line between what was private versus what was public was often clearly stated. A “private house” was understood by all as a designation, as was “public house” or “public garden.” The language of the private thought process came to be known as “keeping your own counsel.” This phrase simply means that one is not going to discuss their beliefs, knowledge or plans with anyone else. When Darcy promises Elizabeth that he will keep the secret about Lydia’s elopement, he reveals his leanings toward the private mind-set of the elite classes as much as his personal trustworthiness.

The more aware I’ve become of this aspect of Georgian and Regency culture, the more insight I’ve gained into the psychology of various Austen characters as it relates to privacy. I’d love to hear your thoughts and observations on this topic.

20 Responses to Lock It or Lose It

  1. Diana, I loved this post and now I want one of those little tables. My mom had a table that looked very similar, but alas, there were no secret compartments. I always love the thought of finding hidden treasures. Thanks for your post. Jen Red

    • I have some modern furniture that has a couple of secret compartments, and we do use them for items we don’t want to be easily located. I would love one of those tables too. Thanks for commenting, Jen!

  2. Fascinating! I would love one of those french mechanical desks. Love the idea of hidden compartments where you can keep your most treasured items. Must have come in handy for storing jewelry, too. I agree with Ms. Hile about the lack of privacy in a house with tons of servants – it would feel more like a hotel than a home, Plus, if I were a servant, I would not like to be locked in my room at night like I was a criminal. On the other hand, none of the servants would be under suspicion, should something come up missing during the night – which could save a lot of time in the search for the thief. What a great topic – Thanks!

    • I found one of those desks on an antique site, and you could have one for a cool $95,000. That being said, I would love one too. I think I would be happy enough to have a maid come in once a week to just help me out in the public areas of the house that could use a good scrub. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  3. I say that I would enjoy living in a house like Pemberley, but would I? It’s more like living at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel than anything I’ve experienced. A full staff with access to every possession, going in and out of the rooms, whose job it is to anticipate my needs and then meet them. Wouldn’t that make my home more like my classroom at school? That is to say, reflecting my personality but at the same time (because materials are accessible), impersonal?

    I also say that I would enjoy having a full-time maid (or any cleaner, even the most part of part-time!), there would be a loss of privacy. We who live in an independent and automated age possess a private life that people in past times would find surprising.

    I live with men (husband and two post-college, money-saving sons), so I have no need for a locked box. They never look! (Or see dirt!) So I’m like the old lady who hides the silver in the underwear drawer, almost in plain sight. 🙂

    • I agree with you 100%. It’s so easy to look at that era and think you nice it would be to have even a little household help without considering the implications of the access that person would have to our personal lives. I had a former relative (now an “ex” relative) who was notorious for snooping around people’s houses for information when she was visiting. She would poke through bills and files, closets and drawers etc. taking great delight in any little tidbit she could find. Oddly enough, she is one of the most secretive people I’ve ever met. I’ve never forgotten that fact. Whenever I meet someone who comes across as secretive now, I don’t turn my back on them!

      I live with men too – husband on one son who is currently in pursuit of a Masters degree and I know exactly what you mean about them not looking. 🙂

    • There are dozens of videos showing more elaborate secretary-style desks with dozens of hidden compartments, but I personally find this little table just delightful. I would love to have something like it today – perhaps modified a little bit to accommodate a small laptop.

      I’m pretty sure our current door locks and windows are not only easier to manage but probably more secure than back then. We also have amazing alarm systems that warn us if someone opens them when the system is armed, or even if something is moving in the room when it shouldn’t be!

  4. I thought your post brought back some memories from my childhood as I also had a box similar to yours that I purchased from our vacation to “House of David” in Michigan. We all value our memories to be locked whether in a box or in our hearts but our things belong to us and not others. So hands off. As the world changes in our times, we are more cautious now with security than when I was a child. I remember not locking doors, keeping windows open and now not so much do we do those things.
    Very interesting article and thanks for sharing it with us!

    • It’s interesting that so many of us gravitated to those little boxes as children, isn’t it? I too grew up in a time and neighborhood where we routinely left the doors unlocked. In the summer, we would leave the wood doors wide open at night and just flip the little “lock” switch on the screen doors so that the breeze could cool the house. Times certainly have changed!

  5. I loved reading this post, Diana. Like you, the only time I went on vacation to the Smoky Mountains I bought a little box almost identical to the one pictured and it had a lock. I was VERY BIG on locks as a child. 🙂 As for the desk, it is magnificent as well as practical. I can imagine Lizzy having one after she became Mrs. Darcy and hiding all of Darcy’s letters to her (he had to have written her more than one) inside it.

    I knew that houses were locked up tight at night and doors were locked, but I had not pictured the servants being locked in their rooms as well. All I can think of is what would happen in a fire if doors and windows were locked. Those wooden houses could go up in smoke quite quickly, I imagine.

    Moreover, the reason for keeping the tea, etc locked because of outsiders was interesting too. You gave me lots of things to consider in a future story. Thank you!

    • To borrow from Anne of Green Gables (who also had a friend named Diana) We must be kindred spirits!

      There were indeed fires that occurred where people could not get out because they were locked in their room, although sometimes people were able to bail out of windows since the shutters and bars usually had indoor latches. In any case, the idea of people being locked in their rooms sounds a bit too prison-ish to me!

  6. I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of the hidden compartments and finding of long-lost letters, that one reads about in novels, etc., and why they seemed like such a prevalent thing. Your article certainly explains why these were so ‘common’. It seems that they were very necessary. In many JAFF stories, we read of Darcy storing things in a safe, but no one considers the secret compartments. Now there’s a plot bunny for you!

    • Modern strongbox-type safes with burglar-proof locking mechanisms weren’t even around until 1835 when they were invented by brothers Charles and Jeremiah Chubb. Furniture with hidden compartments had been around since the late 1600s though, so the secret compartments would be more historically accurate for Regency era stories. Good catch!

  7. Diana. thank you so much for this interesting article! I value my privacy. Especially with ALL that goes on in today’s world with identity theft and such.

    • I feel the same way. Identity theft, computer hacking, cell-phone monitoring and on it goes. It isn’t so much that I have anything to hide, it’s that we shouldn’t have to hide innocent but private things. Thanks for commenting.

  8. Diana, This was fascinating to me on many levels. I can understand, with their limited contact from the outside world— no television rattling nerves with current news from London—the mandatory reading of any correspondence became a form of entertainment. I also appreciate the locked box concept. As a young person, I was allowed no privacy. It became one of my most desired possessions when I became an adult. Thank you for the illustrations. Lovely post!

    • There is something magical to me about locks and keys, handwritten letters and finding a quiet place where it’s just me with my own thoughts. I jealously guard my privacy at times, so I found the topic fascinating as well. Thanks, Barbara!

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