We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
Advertiser Disclosure
Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.
How We Make Money
We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently of our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

What is a Skeleton Key?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
Our promise to you
About Mechanics is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At About Mechanics, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject-matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

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.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By StarJo — On Jan 21, 2013

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.

By cloudel — On Jan 20, 2013

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.

By orangey03 — On Jan 19, 2013

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.

By Perdido — On Jan 18, 2013

@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.

By anon164460 — On Mar 31, 2011

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

By anon150780 — On Feb 08, 2011

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

By Kelenvor — On May 04, 2009

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

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
About Mechanics, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

About Mechanics, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.