The word "escutcheon" typically refers to a decorative cover plate that surrounds a keyhole on a door. It also might be used in reference to any covering that surrounds other household hardware, such as a light switch plate or a decorative handle on a cabinet door. In modern times, an escutcheon typically is a decorative plate that is usually stamped out metal and surrounds or covers another piece of hardware.
Early versions of the escutcheon could be found during medieval times. The first iterations were simple wrought-iron plates that were designed to prevent wear of a wooden door around the keyhole. This plate helped protect the soft wood that was commonly used to build doors from becoming marred or chipped by the blunt point of an iron key. After the Middle Ages, decorative bronze and brass versions became more common and are more representative of a modern escutcheon.
Like other decorative housewares, escutcheons are typically available in hardware stores. They come in numerous finishes, including brass, stainless steel, and chrome. Designs widely vary, ranging from ornate Georgian styles with carved rope and cast floral details to functional cover plates that merely serve to highlight the location of the keyhole on a door.
Decorative hardware escutcheon are generally considered direct descendants of medieval escutcheons that often bore a familial crest and would have been displayed to acknowledge the identity of the residents. This type of escutcheon was generally in the shape of a shield and had a particular set of design and layout criteria that standardized the look of the family crest. Historical examples of early decorative keyhole escutcheons mimic the shield shape associated with heraldry.
Escutcheons, much like cabinetry hardware and light switch covers, are usually available for all design tastes and styles. While referring to these decorative covers as escutcheons is not necessarily common vernacular, they are quite common in modern home design. They typically are used as a way to signify personal taste, as well as serve a specific function.