History of the safe construction

How would we protect our personal valuables today without modern security technology and safe deposit boxes? That’s right – in a safe! The predecessors of modern safes may have looked and functioned very differently, but they were state of the art for their time. Today, these antique safes remain some of the most complex, secure and fascinating objects ever created. Unlike modern safes, which are mass produced and have lost their individuality and exclusivity, antique safes are unique objects with great charm and attention to detail.

The first safe known in history was found in the tomb of Ramses II, Pharaoh of Egypt. This 13th century BC safe was made of wood and had a locking system of movable pins that fell into hidden holes.

Other ancient cultures used similar locking devices. The Roman Empire was characterised by a busy and robust trading economy, which meant that merchants needed an effective means of protecting their goods and revenues from theft. This, along with advances in metalworking, led to the invention of new locking systems. The Romans used notches of different shapes and sizes that required unique keys to open them. Centuries later, nobles in medieval Europe stored their valuables in hardwood chests reinforced with iron fittings. The fittings guaranteed additional strength, but the chests were still neither completely impenetrable nor fireproof.

During the Renaissance era, further innovations in security technology were produced. The epicentre of these advances was once again in Italy.

From the 14th to the 16th century, Italy was a centre of economic and cultural activity. The flourishing trade in cities such as Milan, Venice and Florence made many merchants very rich, and a need arose for solid, large valuables containers.

Weighing over half a ton, due to thick iron plates, iron bands, rivets and a massive latch, this late 17th century Italian cabinet safe is a good example of the security technology and indestructibility of the time. Due to the complete iron sheathing of the wooden core, this piece is fireproof and is still in perfect working condition today. It has a four-key locking mechanism and each of the four intricately crafted iron keys is different. This meant that the keys could be divided between up to four people, who then had to be present when the safe was opened.

To prevent the theft of the keys, one not only needed the appropriate key for each individual lock, but also had to have knowledge of the respective opening trick or combination. This increased security many times over. Many of these early safes were used by churches in their sacristies to protect incense, relics, church books and other valuables. But they were also used by wealthy individuals, merchants and businessmen, notaries and in public buildings to store money, jewellery and important documents. Multi-key safes were extremely useful for business partners and executors, as this meant that each partner or heir had a different key and everyone’s presence was required to unlock the safe.

In the early 19th century, safes became increasingly in demand. The Empire style, which originated in France, had a great influence on the look of modern furnishings of the time. Decorative elements and brass parts now often adorned the exterior of safes.

These works of art were now increasingly found in private households and were intended to show visitors one’s status and wealth.  Between Milan and Turin, the first manufactories emerged that were able to individually produce 2 to 3 safes a month for their wealthy clients. The challenge of constantly coming up with new, ingenious opening tricks and combinations now accounted for a large part of the manufacturing effort. During this time, trick sequences were created that were hard to follow as a spectator of a safe opening. Some people wondered whether they themselves had become the victim of a trick.

A perfect example of a magnificent Empire-style safe, with richly ornamented and elaborately crafted decorative elements, partly in polished brass, flanked by pilasters on front bases and with excellent lock technology.

It is secured by a three-key locking mechanism and five different opening tricks. Once completely locked, opening becomes a complicated and lengthy process, despite the presence of keys, which would have driven many a burglar to despair. Due to the wooden core, the weight is rather low for a safe, which deliberately facilitated the transport to the destination. The safe could then be anchored to the floor or wall to secure it. The base area could additionally be lined with lead ingots to significantly increase the weight.

From the middle of the 19th century onwards, only steel safes with fireproof wall panels were manufactured in large quantities in many European countries. Industry was booming in many parts of Europe, so trade expanded across the continent. These factors led to large profits, both for companies and individuals, necessitating a means of protecting these assets. Transporting goods by train, coach or ship was common, but potential losses from theft, fire and bad weather had to be factored in.

Safes of this period were very heavy but still portable and often travelled with businessmen to secure cash and their most valuable goods. Safes were now found in many areas and it was impossible to imagine life without them. They became increasingly plain and utilitarian, almost unobtrusive and coy. The effectiveness of both modern and antique safes is inextricably linked to the complexity of their locking mechanisms. Early manufacturers were extremely adept at devising new and inventive ways to secure valuables. Hidden keyholes, multiple keys, tricky combinations and other refinements are often found in antique safes. One of the most fascinating aspects of these old pieces is the fact that they give no outward indication of how their insides might be accessed.