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Why Are So Many Door Knobs Made of Brass?

The Ancient Egyptians used copper as a sterilizer. Now the metal is protecting us from coronavirus.

brass doorknob
FiloGetty Images

Welcome to Further Details, a series dedicated to ubiquitous but overlooked elements hidden on your favorite products. This week: the reason why so many doorknobs are made of brass.

Few things are touched as often in a day as door knobs. Despite the necessity of door knobs, they've become something of a trap due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to a centuries-old decision to craft door knobs from brass, we can confidently say, well, it could be worse.

After America won the Revolutionary War, Americans began inventing things to replace the goods Europe once supplied. This included, believe it or not, the door knob. Door knobs weren't necessary during colonial times when doors were about a quarter of an inch and secured with a latch. In the late 1800s, brass became the norm among most door knobs for its resistance to corrosion and rust. Now we're seeing brass is more than just an aesthetic touch.

Health officials have said that coronavirus can live for days on hard surfaces. Brass, a copper alloy, appears to be an exception. Studies show that surfaces made of copper kills bacteria and viruses almost immediately on contact. The U.S. Environmental Protective Agency registered copper as the first antimicrobial solid surface material. This self-sanitizing phenomenon is called the oligodynamic effect.

old door knob
Sonia TapiaGetty Images

Copper's antibacterial properties are rooted in history. Ancient Egyptian medical texts documented the application of the metal to treat wounds and sterilize water. In light of the pandemic, today's entrepreneurs and designers are working with the metal to fashion a plethora of no-touch tools to minimize how many public surfaces you have to touch.

Though we find comfort in knowing the invisible enemy is not invincible, door knobs are not the answer to the coronavirus — wearing a damn mask, washing your hands and maintaining proper social distancing standards is. Changing out the hardware can't hurt, though.

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