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Wrought Nails

Wrought nails before c.1800, Eric Sloan.
Wrought iron nails of various sizes collected on the surface near the governor's house at Los Adaes 16NA16. Conservation by Jay C. Blaine. Source: Los Adaes.

Handmade (wrought) nails of soft malleable iron, with rectangular shanks, drawn by hammer blows to a point and with clearly hammer-marked heads, were from time immemorial, universally used in house building, until about 1800 (in Philadelphia, 1797) when cut nails, because of their much greater cheapness, everywhere immediately superseded them.

Therefore, where the original nails of a house are wrought, the house dates before about 1800; or, where cut, vice versa, after that date.

All the evidence examined establishes this fact, with the following exceptions; namely, that long after 1800, wrought nails, to stand the jar, and because they would clench, continued to be used in the facings of window shutters; in the battens of doors; in the overlap of boards (old style) in lathed room partitions: or on door latches, etc., until about 1850. But these exceptions are not typical of the nails used to build houses after 1800. Nails used at the time a house was built are nearly always to be found in the garret floors.

The wrought nail, no matter what its size, as generally used in house construction, is easily distinguished from the machine-made nails, called cut nails, above re-ferred to, and described later.

It was made from rectangular strips of malleable iron, several feet long, and about a quarter of an inch thick, called nail rods, which were furnished to the black-smith or nailer, who, holding one of them in one hand, heated its end in his forge, and then, on the anvil, pointed it with the hammer on all four sides. Next, he partly cut it, above the point, on the "hardy," with a hammer blow, and then, inserting the hot point into the swage hole, of his so-called 'heading tool,' he broke off the rod and hammered the projecting end so as to spread it around the top of the hole; after which, the cooling, shrunken nail was easily knocked out of the orifice.

Wrought nails, as free-hand forged products, vary greatly in style and shape, but the evidence examined has not as yet furnished any definite elate for any of their variations.

Dating of Old Houses, Henry C. Mercer, SC.D., Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 1923.

Nails formed an important part of the iron goods exported to America, and the industry suffered during the general decline in the iron trade brought about by the War of Independence. Early in 1775 Matthew Boulton, writing to Lord Dartmouth to warn him of the consequences of a long war against the American colonists, stressed the seriousness of the threat to the nailing industry of West Bromwich. (fn. 48) In 1776 Arthur Young noted the decline which the war had caused to the industry locally, (fn. 49) although the three West Bromwich nailmasters mentioned in 1775 were still in business after the end of the war. (fn. 50) In addition the hand-wrought nail trade was beginning to feel the competition of cast nails by the 1780s, a point urged in 1783 by Richard Jesson, one of the partners producing wrought iron at Bromwich forge. (fn. 51)

The hand-wrought nail industry, however, continued to be of great importance in West Bromwich until the early 19th century. In 1812 William Whitehouse, a West Bromwich nail ironmonger, stated that nail-making was conducted on an 'immense' scale in the parish. (fn. 52) The industry was, however, entering on a long period of irreversible decline. It was badly affected by the Orders in Council of 1807 and the Anglo-American war of 1812, and the working nailers suffered depressed wages and unemployment. In 1812 Whitehouse stated that over the previous two years he had had to reduce the number of workers he employed by more than half. More serious for the industry in the long term was the new technique, developed by 1811, of cutting nails by machinery. In 1820 nail-making was still listed as a principal source of employment in West Bromwich, (fn. 53) but the competition of factory-made nails began to be felt from about 1830. Nevertheless the town's 'father trade' (fn. 54) lingered on until at least the 1880s as a domestic industry increasingly left to women workers.

48  S.R.O., D.(W.)1778/II/i/1104; R. A. Pelham, 'The West Midland Iron Ind. and the American Market in the 18th Cent.', Univ. of Birm. Hist. Jnl. ii. 161.
49 V.C.H. Staffs. ii. 240.
50 Bailey's Brit. Dir. (1784), ii. 482-3.
51 S.R.O., D.(W.)1778/V/727, R. Jesson to Lord Dartmouth, 8 Jan. 1783.
52 For this para. see Court, Midland Ind. 197, 209-12; V.C.H. Staffs. ii. 240-1.
53 West Bromwich Vestry Mins. p. 111.
54 Staffs. Advertiser, 22 Dec. 1849.

West Bromwich: Economic history', A History of the County of Staffordshire: Volume 17: Offlow hundred (part) (1976), pp. 27-43.Bristish History Online, URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=36161. Date accessed: 04 April 2006.

Patent 5853 Charles F. Richards, New York, New York Co., making wrought nails, 10/17/1848

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