The Yale and Towne Collection

In January of 2013, I was attending a conference in Chicago where I met the head of acquisitions for the Museum of Science & Industry. She happened to overhear me talking locks with someone and introduced herself. She told me that the museum had just been approached by a widow who wanted to donate her husband’s lock collection, but that they didn’t really know what to do with it, or if they should bother. All I knew at the time was that he was an employee of Yale & Towne. Being that I have a very specific interest in Y&T, I put on the best show I could to convince her to acquire the locks. Then, I heard nothing for a year. In January of 2014, I was back in Chicago for the same conference when I received an email saying that the locks had been acquired, and it wasn’t just Yale locks, but a huge collection of locks from around the world over the past couple thousand years; and would I like to come unbox them for a small audience?

It was probably the worst talk I’ve ever given because I was so engrossed in the locks themselves and basically ignored the attendees. The staff at the MSI had done some early work to establish that this was only 1/3rd of what had been a massive collection assembled by the Yale & Towne company over the course of about 90 years. They knew that another 3rd was held by the Stamford Museum in Stamford, CT, and that the final 3rd was still in private hands, but they were trying to find it.

Since then I’ve been on the hunt for any and all information I can find. It’s been going very well, and I can sketch out a rough picture of what this collection was like in the 1950s. The wife of one of the directors at Y&T was deeply immersed in the modernist art scene and approached her husband about doing a collaborative project with several prominent artists & the Y&T hardware design department. This became the “Style & Security” exhibit which toured the country at art galleries, museums, and universities. It featured the expansive Y&T lock collection, with commentary, and several examples of modernist art relating to locks. In particular, handles & escutcheons sculpted by the likes of Mirko and Fernand Leger.

Then, soon after Yale & Towne’s acquisition by Eaton in 1963, the entire collection was disbanded. The story goes that one third was donated to the Stamford Museum, where it was briefly displayed before being boxed & stored in an attic, and the other two thirds were to be discarded. Thankfully two gentlemen at the company instead decided to split the remaining thirds between them.

Yolanda Pope, the woman who donated the collection to the MSI, kindly sat with me for a 2+ hour long interview, during which she told me all about the wonderful life she shared with her husband, Paul Charles Pope. According to Yolanda, Paul was told to “Throw these locks in the river”, but hated the thought of them being destroyed or lost, so he brought his third home, where they remained in boxes in the attic for half a century. Yolanda enjoyed decorating Paul’s office with a few of the larger pieces, but in general, they just stayed in storage.

We know that Paul was hired in 1858, and that the Stamford Museum received their third of the collection in 1859, which was originally a loan, but was made a permanent gift in 1860. During this time, Paul was a salesman and I don’t believe he would have been in a role of enough responsibility to be charged with the destruction of the lock collection, so it doesn’t seem likely that the remainder of the collection would have been disposed of at that time. The next obvious event that may have caused the collection to be broken up was the acquisition of Yale & Towne by the Eaton corporation.

In 1963, after 95 years of continuity, Yale & Towne was sold. For Eaton, the security arm was a secondary interest. A point they proved by re-selling that division only 15 years later. Eaton’s purchase came while the Style and Security exhibit was still active, and they brought it to the World’s Fair in New York in 1964. I’m guessing that the lock collection was probably turned over to Charles Pope’s care sometime soon after the acquisition. At the moment, I don’t even believe that any of Charles’ portion of the collection were displayed at the World’s Fair.

Working with colleagues at the MSI and Stamford museums, we’ve been able to establish a rough time line of events related to this collection:

  • 1882 - Art Hardware Division:
    As early as 1882, Yale established an “Art Hardware Division”, later known as the “Yale Hardware Styling Department”. The goal of this department was described as

    "The development of designs conforming to the true principles of art.”

    —Fifty Years of a Successful Industry

    From very early on in the history of the company, Yale & Towne decided to focus on the artistry of their hardware right alongside utility. This was ultimately fully realized in the Style & Security tour.

  • 1954 - Design initiative to create a ‘contemporary’ line of hardware:
    While Y&T’s catalogs are a testament to their ongoing commitment to beauty, in the 1950s the renamed Yale Hardware Styling Department set to work on a new initiative to create contemporary hardware drawing on new forms in art and architecture.

  • 1954 - Acquisition of Gillian W. B. Bailey collection:
    In the same year, the company acquired the Gillian W. B. Bailey lock collection. Hers was an amazing, centuries-spanning collection of locks, keys, and locksmithing equipment. This acquisition was celebrated.

    “The Yale Antique Lock Collection, with the addition of the Gillian W. B. Bailey Collection, is believed to represent the largest and most important collection of historic locks in the world.”

  • 1956 - ‘New Forms in Door Ornamentation’ kicks off in NYC:
    Two years after the start of the contemporary hardware initiative, the fruits of the Hardware Styling Department were on display alongside sculptural knobs, escutcheons, and door plaques designed by some of the most accomplished modern artists of the day. Altogether, they toured around the country at art galleries and museums.

  • 1958 - Mr. Pope joins Yale & Towne as a Salesman

  • 1959 - Large portion of beautiful pieces gifted to Stamford

  • 1960 - Gift made permanent

  • 1960 - Style & Security exhibit/tour kicks off:
    Following up on the success of the New Forms in Door Ornamentation exhibit, the Style and Security exhibition, which combined the forward looking art pieces with displays of “4000 years of the history of locks”. We know they were requested a few specific pieces, including a large ornamental key used to advertise a locksmith’s shop, be returned from the Stamford Museum.

  • 1962 - American Federation of Arts continues to display Style & Security:
    Just a data point, but we have records of the Style & Security exhibit being open and available to the public through 1962.

  • 1963 - Bought by Eaton

  • 1964/65 - Displayed “Style & Security” at NY World’s Fair

All rights reserved by Jordan Smith, via Flickr

Next up is trying to find the art. We know that the Smithsonian has the records of the American Federation of the Arts from this time period, so hopefully somewhere in there will be a lead on what happened to the collection after the exhibition ended. And finally, we want to find the remaining locks missing from the collection. The amazing Yolanda Pope has offered us a lead, but it looks like the collection may have been broken up into private hands at some point. If I can find any trace I’ll be thrilled.

Thankfully, we do know that another third lives in Stamford, CT, where Kirsten Brophy and the board of the Stamford Museum allowed me to visit & photograph their entire collection.

The Yale & Towne Collection by The Stamford Museum & Nature Center is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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As best we can tell, this is the first time they have been photographed in their entirity, and they are absolutely gorgeous. Kirsten was also kind enough to provide me copies of dozens of pages of documentation they had about early exhibits, schedules for the Style and Security tour, and correspondence between the museum's director and a director at Y&T that provide tantalizing clues about other features of Y&T's exhibit at the World's Fair.

As time and funding allows, I aim to visit the MSI to re-photograph their collection, hit the Smithsonian to dig into the art records, and hopefully start a conversation about eventually getting this entire collection back together and, ideally, touring again.

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booking me for a speaking engagement or lockpicking workshop!