What is a Skeleton Key?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2018
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Two types of keys are referred to as skeleton keys. The first is the classic key design that fits a warded lock, which has been in use for approximately two thousand years. The second is a master key, a key designed to fit in a wide variety of locks. Antique skeleton keys are not in wide use except on old homes and antique furniture, but master keys are a part of daily life for many people such as locksmiths or people who have homes or businesses with a number of locking doors or devices.

An antique skeleton key classically has a long shaft, a simple bit, and an ornately decorated bow. The bow is the section which is held by the person inserting it. Many old fashioned skeleton keys were made during an era when elaborate metalwork was prized, so the bow may have decorations and ornamental flourishes to make it more distinctive. The bit is the section of a key which is actually inserted into the door, and in the case of a skeleton key, the bit is very simple, and able to open a large number of doors with locks which are similar enough for the key to work.


Originally, these keys were paired with a warded lock. A warded lock uses a set of plates inside the lock which face outwards, rather than running parallel to the side of the key, as is the case with modern keys. A key which fit a warded lock would fit between these plates, and the top of the key would fit into a depression designed to hold it in place while the key was turned, forcing the wards aside and opening the lock. These locks were designed centuries ago, and were widely used until the early twentieth century, when more secure locks were devised. To obtain a skeleton key, consumers can search antique stores or have one custom made by a company which supplies antique keys.

Because of the adaptability of the skeleton key, the term was also adopted to refer to a passkey or master key. A master key is capable of opening any lock within a set family of locks or location. For example, many drivers have a master key which can work in the ignition and open all of the car doors along with the trunk and gas cap, as compared to a valet key, which only operates the ignition and driver's side door. In another common instance, a business may have a number of locking doors which can all be unlocked with a master key, but actually have separate locks, allowing the business to give people keys to offices and bathrooms which are not effective throughout the business. Many hotels also use this technique, giving maids a passkey to the rooms, but guests individual keys for their rooms.


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Post 7

My friend has a really ornate skeleton key necklace. The top is so full of twists and turns that it almost resembles a Celtic knot. It's sterling silver and very pretty.

Post 6

I was delighted when the hotel I stayed at on the beach handed me a skeleton key instead of a card with a magnetic strip on it. I hadn't used an actual key for a hotel room in years!

It struck me as odd, since the hotel wasn't that old. I suppose that they just wanted to keep things quaint.

The skinny key was actually easier to keep up with on the beach than a card would have been. I tied it to the inside of my swimsuit, so I didn't have to leave it on the sand while I was in the ocean.

Post 5

I think of old creepy houses when I think of this kind of key. This is probably because I watched “Skeleton Key” the movie, and there was such a key in it.

Post 4

@Kelenvor – I believe that is because it is so bare. It looks a little like a piece of a human skeleton, because it doesn't have any meat on it.

It's just the most basic thing that can be used to unlock a door. Modern keys usually have thicker extensions and rounded ends that are a solid circle or some solid form, but the skeleton key only has an outline of a circle and a simple stem that holds the bit that matters.

Post 3

I love skeleton keys. They're like little pieces of history. They're so intriguing.

Post 2

I still have and use a skeleton key in my old home to lock the doors.

Post 1

Why did they name it a skeleton key in the first place?

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