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The first known knockers were made out of wrought iron. These simple ornaments consisted of a thick ring and a plate which were used in the 17th and 18th centuries throughout North America and Europe. Human faces (not ghastly like Jacob Marley) an animal faces were popular designs that are still used today. The craftsmanship on some of these knockers was elaborate enough to compare to the most-polished sculpture. Basically the purpose is to save the knuckles of visitors. Although they mainly serve as decoration they are still made of brass pewter iron or stainless steel to be durable enough to withstand outdoor elements. Plus they must be heavy enough to make a sound when they are tapped against a door. Cast iron styles have been favorites for a long time for their simplicity and sturdiness. They are also good for complimenting a Western theme. Pewter is another popular material.
The metal is actually an alloy (two or more metals mixed together); usually containing 85-99% tin and the rest copper. Lower-grade pewter has a bluish color because lead is also added. Although there is little practical use for the metal today its still a popular material for decorative objects because it is easy to produce while retaining an elegant texture.Copper is renowned for its ability to withstand the natural elements; it is the only material that doesnt rust. Instead it oxidizes - which means it forms a unique green cover when exposed to oxygen (think of the statue of liberty). Besides aging gracefully copper doesnt physically deteriorate unlike other metals. The oxidation layer makes the metal stronger which reduces the need to replace any door knockers made out of copper.
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Especially if you are purchasing a gift. You may not know exactly what you want. The decor of the home should be considered. Door knockers come in many styles and finishes. You would not place an ultra modern style door knocker on a colonial style home. Many traditional styles do not fit in well with modern houses. If your purchase is for a wedding gift or housewarming gift and you may not know where the door knocker will wind up. In this case there are many styles available that are universal. If not certain of the final location it is best to stay simple. Do not get to fancy. A simple style goes with most decors.