Nails: one of the things I never knew I wanted to know about.

Nails from the red house- first generation, and second
Nails from the red house

Nails: one of the things I never knew I wanted to know about.

Who knew the study of nails would provide so many clues about the age of the red house.

The evolution of the nail goes something like this:

There are three generations of nails

First Generation:

Wrought nails: All nails were made by hand until the late 1700s. At that time England was the largest manufacturer of nails in the world. Nails were so highly valued it was common practice in the American colonies, when moving, to burn a building down in order to retrieve them.

Wrought nails were made one at a time by a blacksmith from a square iron rod. The rod was heated and then hammered on all four sides to form a point. It was re heated and cut off and placed in an anvil where a blacksmith would hammer the top to form the nail head. Until the 1790s and the early 1800s, hand-wrought nails were used to fasten sheathing and roof boards on building frames

Nail making was an important facet of life but not a practice restricted to the lower classes. Because nails were hard to come by it was common for families to make nails at home. Nails were made for their traditional purpose (to hold pieces of wood together), and also used as barter

Second Generation:

Machine cut nails came into use around 1790 making it possible to manufacture nails on a much wider scale. The invention of the nail cutting machine rapidly put the United States in front in the manufacturing of nails and has lead the world ever since.

Type A Cut nails (1790s-1820s). Machine cut nails started out with just the nail portion being cut from a machine and the head was still hammered onto the nail by hand.

Even Thomas Jefferson was very proud of his hand made nails. “In our private pursuits it is a great advantage that every honest employment is deemed honorable. I am myself a nail maker.” Jefferson was among the first to purchase the newly invented nail-cutting machine in 1796 and produce nails for sale.


Type B cut nails (1810-1900).

Starting around 1810, the entire nail was cut from a machine, sheared off in a tapered shape. The head was also formed by machine. These nails were more square than rounded with irregular or square heads. They were also made with iron.

Type B cut nails were to become the most commonly used nails through of the greater part of the nineteenth century.

Third Generation:

Wire nail (1880s-present)

Wire nails were developed mid to late 1800s in the United States and were originally for small things like cigar boxes. They are made from steel wire and are much cheaper to produce than cut nails. Wire nails came into prominent use by 1890.

Square hand made nails and all, the dining room walls now fill the first dumspter
Square hand made nails and all, the dining room walls now fill the first dumspter

We discovered that the red house has all three generations of nails. The hand wrought nails we found in the exterior plank siding of the house indicated it was built in the latter 1700s.

Type A Cut nails appeared in the lath and plaster we removed from the kitchen walls, indicating that the house was updated in 1810-1820. Both Type A and B cut nails were found in the third and fourth additions to the house so we can surmise that those additions spanned across 1830-1870s. Wire nails were found in the upstairs dormer added mid century.

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