Antique Safes: Unlocking the Styles of the Past 

Updated November 8, 2021
An antique safe at a grungy place

There's something about the daunting look of an antique safe that just inspires the inner outlaw in everybody. While hardly anyone's going around and cracking open bank safes anymore using stethoscopes and daring countenance, these once highly useful repositories have become beloved collectors items today.

Lock It Up: Safe History

Although a repository for your money feels like something that would have existed since the dawn of time, it wasn't until the mid-1820s that safe production began in the United States. Despite being colonized for 200 years at that point, all of the safes that were used in America were European and basically amounted to strong wooden boxes secured with iron hoops.

One of the first types of safes manufactured in the United States was the knob-chest, which later became known as the hobnail safe. First made in the late 1820s, workers constructed the safes from a wooden chest covered with pieces of sheet iron. They then banded, strapped and secured them with large headed cast iron nails, giving it the hobnail look. Manufacturers of hobnail safes include Jesse Delano, C. J. Gayler, and Magaud de Charf.

Safes and Fireproofing

Although they made the safes of the time to be burglar proof, people also wanted them to be fireproof. One of the first companies to patent a fireproof safe was the John Scott Safe Company of New York. In business for only two years, from 1834 to 1835, this company secured a patent in their first year to use asbestos as the fireproofing material. Recently, the Elizabeth Street Gallery offered one of the few remaining safes by the John Scott Safe Company for a selling price of $8,500.

Safe companies realized the existing safes didn't hold up against the ravages of fire, and during the 1830s and 1840s manufacturers were developing new fireproof processes using interior fillings of plaster of Paris and charcoal. Companies of this time period manufacturing fireproof safes include:

  • Daniel Fitzgerald
  • Benjamin Sherwood
  • Enos Wilder
  • Benjamin G. Wilder
  • Rich, Roff and Stearns
  • Silas C. Herring

The safes manufactured by the Diebold Safe Company earned their reputation as fireproof after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The contents of all 878 Diebold safes involved in the fire survived intact, making Diebold one of the most desired safes of the time. However, fireproofing as a reputable standard wasn't introduced until 1917, meaning supposedly fireproof safes from before the 1920s could still very well be lit ablaze.

Contemporary Safes

Although it's becoming more and more uncommon for people to personally own safes in their home, some people do. Usually, these safes are on the smaller side, and can come with an array of fancy characteristics, including biometric locks, full fireproofing and waterproofing systems, and portability.

Safe Styles Over the Years

From elaborate Victorian standing parlor safes to massive commercial vaults, manufacturers of safes from years past produced safes in various sizes, shapes and designs.

Victorian Parlor Safes

Antique Cast-Iron Royal Safe-Deposit Mini Safe

A popular style, the Victorian parlor safe was usually beautifully decorated. Many were adorned with gold gilt, rosewood drawers, delicate paintings, or inlaid designs. Variations of this style safe are known as:

  • Jewelry safe
  • Boudoir safe
  • Brothel safe
  • Tabletop parlor safe

Cannonball Safes

Farmers and Merchant Bank Cannonball Safe

Massive Cannonball safes, like this one manufactured by the Mosler Safe Company, were named for their round shape and were often displayed in banks to show bank customers how their deposits were kept safe. Smaller versions of the cannonball safe were used in homes and businesses.

Classic Cast Iron Safes

The quintessential safe that most people envision when they think about historic bank robbing and western shootouts were made out of cast iron and came in both single door and double door styles. These safes were built to be incredibly sturdy and often could hold significant amounts of cash or other small items. Eventually, these giant safes fell out of fashion as the banking system evolved and their size was reduced almost by a third. Some of these famous safe manufacturers include:

  • Mosler Safe Company
  • Schwab Safe Company
  • Victor Safe & Lock Company
  • Herring Hall Marvin Safe Co.

Cabinet Safes

Safes forged in steel with an appearance of solid wood were popular in the late-19th and early 20th century. Manufactured by Brevete, Magaud de Charf, Marseille, a beautiful example is the Napoleon III style safe circa the 1870s. A popular trend regarding these types of safes is restoring them and integrating humidors, cocktail bars, or minibars into the finished safe. Customized safes retain all of the original features of these beautiful antiques, including:

  • Secret compartments
  • Heraldic symbols
  • Escutcheons
  • Ornamental name plates
  • Coat of arms
  • Engraved insignia
  • Secret coded locking systems

How to Evaluate Antique Safes

Their grand appearance can give the illusion that all antique safes are worth thousands of dollars. Now, a fair number of impressive safes are absolutely worth thousands of dollars; however, there are a lot of factors that go into evaluating antique safes, and a lot of safes don't quite measure up. Whether you're thinking of selling or buying, these are all things to consider:

  • Larger safes vs. smaller safes - Generally, there are not as many buyers of heavy, tall antique safes since they're difficult to transport and take up a lot of space in storage. Thus, if you're looking for a quick turnaround as a seller or a lower-priced item as a buyer, turn towards the smaller desktop or wall safes you can find.
  • Market interest - The safe market in general is highly specified, meaning that there aren't a ton of different people gunning to own their own antique safe when there're tons of modern safes available.
  • Working conditions - Safes that don't require a complete mechanical rebuild receive more interest from buyers and can therefore be worth more money. That doesn't mean that safes which aren't working aren't valuable at all; rather, in comparison, already working safes are the more desirable and lucrative choice.

Unlock a New Favorite Collectible

Antique safes are a wonderful addition to any antique lover's home. They offer a place to store your valuables while providing a sense of mystery and intrigue as you imagine where your safe guarded treasures in earlier times.

Antique Safes: Unlocking the Styles of the Past