Antique Diebold Safes

Terry Hurley
Antique file cabinets were also used in banks and offices.

Earning their reputation as fireproof after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, antique Diebold safes are not only functional; they are also beautiful in craftsmanship and design.

The Diebold Safe Company: The Early Years

Founded in 1859 by Charles Diebold, the Diebold Bahmann Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, manufactured safes and vaults. Twelve years later, the company received a huge boost in popularity when it was reported that all of the 878 Diebold safes involved in the Great Chicago Fire had survived with their contents intact.

Sales boomed as private individuals, businesses and banks wanted to protect their valuables in a Diebold safe. Needing a larger manufacturing space, the company moved to Canton, Ohio, where they continued to grow in popularity.

In 1874, the Diebold Company was chosen by Wells Fargo of San Francisco to build the world's largest vault. Completed within a year, Diebold delivered the massive vault measuring 27 feet wide, 32 feet high long and12 feet high. From then on, the company which was incorporated in 1876 under the name Diebold Safe and Lock Company became a leader in the manufacture of huge vaults for commercial banks.

Fireproof, Bank Robber and Burglar Resistant

In order to ensure the safety of the contents of a safe, the Diebold Company continually made improvements on their products. From the beginning, Diebold safes used either mortar or plaster of Paris as their fireproofing material. Although there were a few safe manufacturing companies that began using asbestos as their fireproofing material in the early 1900s, there is no record of the Diebold Company being one of them.

Other materials used to keep valuables secure in antique safes include:

  • Fillings of Franklinite, the hardest mineral ore known at the time containing zinc and manganese
  • Fillings made from a combination of alum, alkali and clay
  • Fillings were reinforced with soft steel rods running both horizontally and vertically
  • Outer side walls were made of heavy boiler plate wrought iron
  • Inner side walls made of hardened steel.

The Diebold Company continually worked to keep their safes and their valuable contents out of the hands of bank robbers. Several of the company's developments included:

  • A triple time lock system on safes in the 1870s
  • The Cannonball Safe design
  • The introduction of TNT-proof manganese steel doors in 1890

The Diebold Cannonball Safe

Appropriately named because of its heavy weight and unique round shape, cannonball safes became a popular display item in banks in the mid to late 1800s. Weighing approximately 3,600 pounds with a beautifully rounded body, cannonball safes were almost impossible for robbers to steal. Banks proudly displayed their prized cannonball safes as a way of showing their depositors the money was safe. To make their safes robber proof the Diebold Company installed a triple time lock to the cannonball safe. This meant the safe could only be opened during the daytime, further foiling robbery attempts by kidnapping the banker at night and forcing him to open the safe.

Diebold Cannonball safes were lavishly decorated to further impress the bank depositors. The safes were painted with beautiful golden toned paints and decorated by hand-jewelling. Hand-jewelling is a painting technique used to make the painted area sparkle like diamonds when light hits the surface.

The Beauty of Antique Diebold Safes

Cannonball safes, as did all Diebold safes, had interiors as beautiful as the exteriors. Many were decorated inside with hand-jewelling, pin striping and gold flecked paint. Many safes had various parts and mechanisms lavishly engraved. Some safes had magnificent paintings on their doors, while other doors were painted with delicate flowers.

Examples of Antique Safes by Diebold

  • An exquisite example of a Diebold cannonball safe from 1872 is found on the Goodman, Wesson and Associates Antique Firearm website. Complete with a triple time lock and its interior safe original keys, this antique safe is a gorgeous example of the workmanship of this fine company.
  • To view two beautiful Diebold safes housed at the El Pomar Carriage Museum in Colorado, visit Travel Photo base and scroll to the next to last row of pictures. The Diebold safes are the two in the middle. Click on the small photo to see an enlarged picture of these elegant safes each with a different fabulous hand-painted scene.
  • An exquisite Diebold safe in the Minneapolis Wells Fargo History Museum.
  • Rarely found at auction or in antique shops, this massive Diebold safe in need of restoration. Dating from approximately 1872-1880, this safe may be an antique safe collector's dream

Antique Diebold safes are more than utilitarian objects. Each one is a magnificent treasure from the past exemplifying quality craftsmanship and highlighting quality and beauty.

Antique Diebold Safes