Mossman Lock Collection

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 54 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned These two magnetic locks, made by James Sargent of Rochester, New York, in 1865 and 1866 respectively.

Mossman Lock Collection

Located in Case 7, they epitomize the combination of technical innovation (making combination locks much harder to crack) with aesthetics that characterizes Mr. Mossman’s collection.

For anyone who cares for such queer things, New York offers the gift of numerous institutions devoted to esoteric and hermetic topics. Coins, Tattoos, and Maritime Industry all get their due, as well as obscure people like Antonio Meucci, the would-be inventor of the telephone and Nicholas Roerich, a visionary Russian mystic painter. But I’d argue that New York’s most esoteric and hermetic museum is the Mossman Lock Collection, at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen.

General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, New York

The General Society

The General Society dates back to 1785, founded as an organization to support and nurture the skilled craftsmen of the city. In 1820 it opened a free school and a library (second oldest library in the city), both of which continue to this day.

Today the General Society resides in a handsome building on West 44th Street, one of the best blocks in the city from a storied institution perspective, also being home to the American Bar Association, the Algonquin Hotel, the New York Yacht Club, and the Harvard Club.  It continues to provide education, training, and support to those in the craft and building trades.

Although the Society itself is private, members of the public are welcome to visit the lock museum on the mezzanine level of the library.

Mossman Lock Collection, General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen

John M. Mossman and His Locks

John M. Mossman loved locks. They were both his vocation and his avocation. In late 19th and early 20th century New York, Mr. Mossman was a leading maker of bank vaults for high end clients like the Stock Exchange and Bank of America. Often the state-of-the-art locks and vaults he installed replaced older ones, and those obsolete, often lovely, things form the backbone of his collection.

In 1903, Mossman donated his 370-piece collection to the General Society, for the edification of members and the public. And his collection, and the Mossman Lock Museum, hasn’t changed a bit since then.

Locked Out of Time

Indeed, the guide to the collection comes in the form of The Lure of the Lock, a handsome, surprisingly heavy, hardcover book published in 1928. The tome covers the entire history of locks up to that time, and has a chapter that walks visitors through Mr. Mossman’s collection, case by case, shelf by shelf. And the guide still works fine today, not a lock out of place.

Mossman Lock Collection, General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen
The Lure of the Lock

The collection includes a 4,000-year-old wooden lock from ancient Egypt, and some examples of the lockmakers’ craft from the Middle Ages. But mainly it focuses on locks from the mid-19th to early-20th centuries.

Mossman accumulated some exquisite mechanisms, from an era when it seems craftsmen took delight in melding the functional and the beautiful, and even bits of a lock that no one would ever see could be deemed worthy of ornament.

The 13 or so cases that house the collection cover locks by topic, technology, and style, including combination locks, time locks, liquid time locks, powder proof locks, grasshopper locks, and magic locks. All lovingly described in the book, as well as on neat labels for selected outstanding pieces.

Mossman Lock Collection, General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen
Combination Locks

Why Would Anyone Visit the Mossman Lock Collection?

Mossman Lock Collection, General Society of Mechanics and TradesmenMore than most museums, the Mossman Lock Collection raised fundamental, existential questions. Not just why would someone visit, but why does this museum even still exist? I mean, I suppose it exists because Mossman left his collection and money to endow it.  And the General Society may not have anything better to do with the space.

But what’s the value of a lock museum whose newest lock is well over a century old?

If you’re a burglar casing a joint with a very old safe, this museum holds definite instructive value. Or if you’re a mystery writer working on a period piece and you want to get the bank vault door just exactly right, this, again, is pragmatic and useful reference. For everyone else, the value proves much harder to ascertain. 

The collection is a monument to obsession. Mossman’s passion probably seemed kind of weird in his own time, much less in ours. But he diligently, lovingly gathered and documented, and  organized his cases to maximize didactic and aesthetic value. So if you’re into OCD you might get a bang out of this museum.

However, the rest of us need to think differently to justify a visit.

When is a Lock not a Lock?

Superficially, the Mossman Lock Collection just isn’t that interesting. I just don’t care about locks — except when I use one.  Having said that, I just remembered that when I visited Federal Hall downtown, I called out the beautiful vault lock as the best thing I saw there.  Perhaps I have a bit of John Mossman in me after all.

Mossman Lock Collection, General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen

Why hasn’t the General Society just boxed up Mr. Mossman’s locks and relegated them to storage?  I believe that its own long history shapes a distinctive outlook on what the collection represents.

The locks aren’t just locks. They stand for all the things that highly skilled experts once crafted largely or entirely by hand, with pride and artistry and beauty. The Mossman Lock Collection is a monument to the physical over the digital, and the handmade over the mass produced. It’s only incidental that it happens to manifest in the form of locks.

Not many people visit the Mossman Lock Collection. And I’m not saying you should drop everything and go. But if you’re in the mood for something different, quiet, and contemplative of things beautifully made but long obsolete, this could be a very good place for you.

For Reference:

Address 20 West 44th Street, Manhattan
Website generalsociety.org
Cost  General Admission:  $10 (recommended)