Hobnail Safes: Antique Fire Safes

The 1832 newspaper ad shown here talks about the excellent performance of a “hobnail safe” when it went through a fire in New Orleans in 1831.  The safe in question was built by John Scott of Philadelphia, who was one of the leading safe makers at the time.  One of the hobnail safes in our store was apparently built by John Scott.  It looks just like the unit shown in the ad, inside and out.  This ad was, in fact, inside our safe when we bought it.

Hobnail safes have wooden bodies.  The wood was soaked in salt water prior to making the safe, so that it would be more fire resistant.  To give them more burglary deterrence strips of steel were interwoven and secured to the wood using large spikes with big round heads.  The big round heads all over the exterior are why they are called hobnail safes.  A fun thing about these units is that one, or several, of these spikes move sideways to cover up the keyhole.  Keys are typically huge “skeleton” type keys.  The other John Scott hobnails in our collection do not have stained and varnished wood interiors; rather, they are both pained in a strange “rusty-orange” paint.  Jesse Delano was the other major maker of hobnails in the U.S.

It does not seem to make sense that wood could be used to for insulation in a fire safe.  But apparently if the wood is covered from direct contact with fire, its porousness makes decent insulation.

Hobnail safes in good condition are unusual and, therefore, not cheap.  We have a few for sale, however, so call if you are interested in a nice antique safe.