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Wire Nails in North America
Peter Priess, NHSP, Ottawa

History of the Nail, Academy for the Advancement of Science Technology
Nails and Wood Screws, Cathedral Communications Limited

The presence of wire nails in a North American context probably represents a date no earlier than the last two decades of the 19th century and, consequently, can be used by the historical archaeologist or restorationist to identify recent, altered or contaminated contexts in a site.

The technology or wire-nail manufacture was known and used in parts of Europe from the early 19th century but its arrival and use in North America was delayed until after the middle of the century and the general acceptance of wire nails for building construction came only during the last two decades of the century. By the end of the 19th century the production of wire nails in North America greatly exceeded that of cut nails.

The term wire nail applies to both the present day machine-made nail using wire stock and earlier nails which used wire stock but may not have been made entirely with the use of machines.

The technology for wire nails apparently originated in France early in the 19th century. It is interesting to note that the early technology for the manufacture of pins from wire with a wound head, dating back to the 16th century, was not transferred to the manufacture of nails although the present day manufacture of nails and pins bear some resemblance to each other. Fremont lists French patents for wire nails beginning in 1806 and including at least seven up to 1825. Among these early patents is one registered in 1811 by James White, an American resident of Paris, for a machine which would cut head and point a nail in one operation. The French origin for wire nails is also reflected in their being referred to as “French nails” or “pointes de Paris”.

As a single instance, I may refer to the manufacture of steel nails. It is an important and well-known fact that a steel nail can be driven into dry hard wood without boring a hole for it. This property of steel nails results in an immense saving of labour, and in the United States, where so many houses are built of wood, it has proved of considerable value. I find from reliable statistics furnished by nail manufacturers, that in 1892 no less than 171,200 tons of unforged nails, and 139,900 tons of steel-wire nails were made in America alone. Medium-sized nails run from 80,000 to 120,000 to the ton, and I have before me some beautifully-formed carpet nails, with large flat heads, of which a single ton of steel will make 3,870,000.

It is an interesting fact that at the International Exhibition of 1862, I exhibited the first steel nails that were ever made. Every form and pattern of nail was shown, large spikes, 6 inches long, weighing only 10 to the pound, or 22,400 to the ton, down to the minute tacks used by upholsterers, and known as gymp tacks, so small that one ton of steel will make more than 14 millions of them.

I well remember how many thousands of people at the Exhibition passed heedlessly by these germs of a new and important industry, apparently without the remotest idea of the future universal employment of steel nails in lieu of iron ones.

Sir Henry Bessemer, an Autobiography, F.R.S. Chapter XXI, Conclusions

To some extent the early manufacture of wire nails may have been little more than the transfer of hand-forging techniques from bar stock to wire stock. This type of manufacture is described briefly by Laboulaye and elsewhere. Fremont states that the first industrial production of wire nails in France began in 1819, although not using the machine patented by White which is characterized as being better known for its ingenuity then its strength and not capable of withstanding the rigorous demands of continuous production.

By 1840 machine made wire nails were being produced by a number of Paris manufacturers and wire nail machines were being exhibited at the Paris Exhibitions of 1844 and 1855 and at the London Exhibition of 1851. The machine exhibited in 1844 is also illustrated by Laboulaye, and consists of a relatively sophisticated hand-cranked apparatus which cut, headed and pointed a nail from a coil of wire by a turn of the crank.

Improvements in wire-nail technology during the first half of the 19th century appear to have been restricted to continental Europe. References on the introduction of wire nail manufacture to North America generally attribute it to French or German technologists and machines. British patents for wire nails did not appear until the 1850’s. Even at the end of the 19th century a British dictionary still considered it appropriate to state that “there are three leading distinctions of iron nails as respects the modes of manufacture, wrought, cut, and cast”.

The beginning of wire nail manufacture in North America is often given as 1851 and is attributed to William Hassall or Thomas Morton or Adolph Browne. It has also been given as 1870 and attributed to the pillow and Hersey Manufacturing Company of Montreal and it is claimed by M. Baackes of Cleveland that he established “the first mill for the manufacture of wire nails on this side of the Atlantic” at Covington, Kentucky in 1875.

The association of early production in North America with the use of wire nails in building construction is probably limited. It is generally noted that the early types of wire nail were small and intended for such uses as cigar boxes, furniture or upholstering.

The rise of the wire nail for building construction is a feature of the last quarter of the 19th century. At the beginning of this period Knight could say little more than “chests and boxes from the continent of Europe and from Asia are found to be fastened with nails of this character”. Slightly later, Benjamin stated that wire nails “are well suited for, and principally used in, the construction of packaging cases of willow or other soft woods which grow so abundantly on the continent”. Late in the century Smith could still state, possibly erroneously, that their manufacture was “mainly carried on by Continental firms”. According to Swank “the wire nail as a substitute for the cut nail did not, however, come into notice in this country until…1883 or 1884”, based on information provided by the American Wire Nail Company.

Very great difficulty was experienced in inducing the hardware trade to recognize the wire brad and wire nail as a salable commodity. From 1878 to 1880 the growth of the wire nail was very slow and was attended with many difficulties. Deep rooted prejudices of all kinds had to be overcome. It was not until the year 1883 or 1884 that the wire nail came into the market prominently as a competitor of the cut nail.
Another factor which delayed the spread of wire nails was the cost of raw material. Until 1879 it was necessary to use the more expensive Norway iron to produce a suitable product. In 1879 only two manufacturers were advertising wire nails in the “standard hardware trade journal, the Iron Age”. The first mention of wire for nails in the indices of American patents appears in 1877.

By the late 1880’s the situation had changed considerably and it could be stated that Nails of a very different kind, manufactured from steel wire, have been in use for a number of years in America and for a longer period in Europe, and in both places they have been favorably received and are fast superceding the common cut nails for many purposes. The advantages of these over the cut nails are many. For the same amount of metal they are much stronger; they can be driven into thin boards without splitting them, and can be removed without leaving so unsightly a hole as is usually made by common nails. Besides this, on account of their superior stiffness they can be driven into very hard wood, where much caution is necessary if common nails are to be used. They are also more easily produced and are handled with less labor.

Common wire nails. Construction Work

Tests conducted in 1884, at the Watertown Arsenal, demonstrated the superior holding power of cut nails over wire nails but the relative cheapness, ease of handling and variety of wire nails prevailed and the wire nail came to dominate the production of nails in North America before the end of the 19th century. In 1886 the North American production of cut nails totaled over eight million kegs and that of wire nails over half a million; in 1890 the totals were over five and a half million kegs for cut nails and over three million for wire nails; in 1900 the total for cut nails had declined to slightly over one and a half million kegs while that for wire nails had risen to over seven and a quarter million, and by 1913 the total for cut nails was less than one million and that for wire nails almost thirteen million. A problem of rusting on wire shingling nails apparently did not pose any long term threat to the wire nail industry.

In the interpretation of wire nails from a site the question of availability must also be given some consideration. The fact that a technology was developed at a certain time in history does not necessarily mean that its products were immediately available or used at a specific site. Problems of trade, economics, tradition, prejudice or other similar reasons would prolong the use of cut nails and retard the acceptance of wire nails. A similar situation existed in the transition from wrought to cut nails earlier in the 19th century.

From the preceding it should be evident that wire nails were produced during much of the 19th century, although not necessarily in North America, but it is unlikely that they would appear in North America in the context of building construction until the last two decades of the 19th century. The wire nails from a site should be considered in terms of their quantity and likely use and the local situation of supply and acceptance. The presence of relatively small quantities of small sizes which cold have been used in packing crates, small chests, cigar boxes, upholstering, and other similar purposes would not preclude the possibility of an early date, after approximately 1820. Such articles would likely also be imports using European produced nails. However, the presence of larger quantities of wire nails suitable for building construction should be considered as probably representing a date after about 1880 when the use of wire nails for such applications became generally acceptable in North America. This date would also be adjusted by historical information on local availability and acceptance.

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