What’s the Story Behind the Hobnail Safe?

What’s the Story Behind the Hobnail Safe?

“What’s the story behind…” is a series of short articles on objects, events, people and places that figure in the 290 year history of Old First.

The Trustees’ minutes of February 21, 1967 record that “A discussion of the large safe that Mr. Lucas left resulted in Mr. Kershner moving that Mr. Fox be authorized to look into getting a locksmith to open it with the possibility that we may be able to use it and not have to move all our present safes.”  (John Lucas was the man who bought the church in 1882 to use as a paint warehouse.  Mr. Fox was the president of the church’s board of trustees in the 60’s and 70’s and spearheaded the move back to and restoration of 4th & Race.)  The minutes do not describe the safe nor say where the safe was found.  Dollars to doughnuts, this is the large hobnail safe currently situated on its back under the lower narthex stairs.

The first hobnail safes appeared in the United States around 1826 and were common from the 1830’s on.  Hobnail safes were not intended to protect items from theft.  Rather, they were designed to be fireproof.  They were meant to store and protect valuable documents—loans, contracts, wills, etc.  Not money.  Did the congregation leave the safe at 4th & Race when they sold the property and moved to 10th & Wallace?  Maybe.  The safe is the right age to have been bought new when the current church building was constructed.  Or did John Lucas buy an old safe in addition to using one of crypts as a vault for his company’s use at 4th & Race.  All we know for certain is that Lucas made one of the crypts into a vault.


Nancy Donohue