Why are knobs so low in some Miss-Lou doors?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 22, 2009

Whether she is stocking shelves or watching over the store from behind the counter, Pat Butler always has one eye on the door at Turning Pages Books & More.

Of course she’s always on the lookout for customers but for her, the watchful eye is more than just waiting for the next person to come in.

She’s watching to make sure patrons can actually get into the store.

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Butler, manager at the bookstore, said people often walk up to the door and reach for the doorknob only to come up empty. That’s because the doorknobs are shin high instead of the more modern waist high position.

“People are always coming in and saying ‘These must have been built for little people,’” Butler said with a laugh.

Butler said that while the doorknobs are often a topic of small talk, she has never known the reason why they are so low.

“I guess that’s just the way things were back when these buildings were built,” Butler said. “These are the original doors to the building.”

But over the years, Butler said customers have offered up a variety a explanations for the door handles.

“Everyone has an idea about it,” she said. “Some lady said it is because the sidewalks have been built up higher — first they were dirt and then brick and now concrete.”

But as compelling as the sidewalk theory may be, it doesn’t hold up to history.

Mimi Miller, director of programs at the Historic Natchez Foundation, said the reason for the low doorknobs is fairly simple — the structure of the door forces it to be that way.

“That is where the rail and the stile of the door meet,” she said. “That is the sturdiest part of the door.”

The stiles of a door are vertical boards that run the full height of a door and make up the doors right and left side. Hinges are mounted on the fixed stiles and the doorknobs, locks and bolts are mounted on the swinging side, also called the latch stiles.

The rails of the door are horizontal boards at the top, bottom and sometimes in the middle of a door. Rails join the two stiles of the door.

The middle rail is typically located near the door’s bolt, and would provide a well-supported location for a doorknob and lock.

On doors without a middle rail, which is common in downtown doors, the best location is the spot where the lower rail, also called a kick rail, and the latch stile meet.

Miller said the reason doors didn’t have a middle rail was to allow glass space.

“They wanted as much glass as they could get in a retail spot so people could view into the stores,” Miller said. “That pushed the rail down and, in turn, pushed the door knob lower.

Darby Short, who operates stores in three downtown buildings, figured large glass windows in the doors had something to do with the doorknob height.

“I always thought it was to have the large windows to allow as much light as possible in,” Short said. “They didn’t have the lighting that we have now.”

She said her customers comment on the knob height, but said she has never had a complaint.

“For 27 years and in all three buildings we have the low doorknobs, but people don’t mind it. I think they are used to it.

“When they walk up to the door, they are already looking for a way to get in.”

Bass Pecan Company Manager Phyllis Feiser said she also hasn’t had any complaints from customers. She said some people actually enjoy the low door fixtures.

“It makes it really easy when you are short,” said Feiser who stands 5-foot-1-inch herself.