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The Lowly Nail As High Tech Marvel

When the M-Street area began to be developed in the early 1900s, the technology of home construction using cheap, mass-produced "wire nails" and power-sawn dimensional lumber was only about fifty years old. The shapes and styles of our homes could not exist in their familiar form today without the revolution in nail manufacturing which occurred in the 1870's.

three types of nails This illustration shows three types of nails:
(a) the hand-wrought nail tapers on four sides (before 1800);
(b) the cut-nail tapers on two opposite sides (mid-1800s);
(c) the machine-made wire nail has a circular shank and tapers continuously (late 1800s thru today).


From the time of the ancient Romans, right up to the early 1800's, nails were made by hand, one by one, by specially skilled blacksmiths. The first hand-wrought nails in America were imported from England. However, by the late 1600's, rolling and slitting mills were built throughout the American colonies. These mills produced rectangular rods of malleable iron several feet long and about a quarter of an inch thick. The "nail rods" were cut and forged by hand into nails.

In order to make a single nail, the blacksmith heated one end of the nail rod in his forge and then hammered all four sides (on the anvil) to the thickness and taper required. He then inserted the pointed end in a swage block, cut the rod, and hammered down the projecting blunt end to form the nailhead.

Many varieties and sizes of nails were wrought in this manner, ranging from huge spikes for shipbuilding to small nails for securing moldings and brass trim on furniture.

Hand-wrought nails were strong and tough and had long lives. The purity of the iron and the density of the texture (produced by hand forging) made them highly resistant to rust and dampness.

Because of the time, effort and skill required to produce each nail, nails were a very precious commodity. The same nails were used again and again, for as long as possible. Nobody ever knowingly discarded a nail.

Nails were too valuable to be used in the "framing" of a house. The structural elements of a house were huge timbers connected by elaborate mostise-and tenon joints.


All nails were entirely hand forged until almost 1800. The growing industrialization of that time produced a new technology, the "cut nail." The machine-produced cut-nail was much cheaper to make than the hand-wrought nail. Cut-nails replaced wrought nails for most applications by the early 1800's.

The form of the cut-nail was a rectangular tapering shank of iron. The nail was not hammered into a point by hand, but was tapered by a single angle cut across a plate of iron.

Nails began as a strip of plate iron, several feet in length, about 2.25 inches wide and usually about 0.1 inch thick. The blacksmith slid the strip into a cutter which clipped off the end of the iron plate crosswise into narrow tapering rectangular slices (the nails). The taper of the cut produced the point of the nail.

Before 1825, the nail head was made by dropping the freshly cut piece into a slotted clamp or vise, and then spreading the larger projecting end with a hammer. About 1825, machinery was invented to speed up the production of cut-nails by combining the cutting and hammering operations in one machine. Factory-made nails became available in much larger quantities than ever before.

However, the new type of nail was brittle. It could not compete with the strength of the old-style forged nail for such things as gates, doors, wagon bodies and boats. Nails for these applications were still hand forged for another century.


The modern, machine-made steel wire nail with its round head and circular shank made its general appearance in America in about 1870. It was manufactured earlier in Europe, but American wire nail machinery was not perfected until the 1860's.

The new nail-making machinery was a high-tech wonder of its time. The 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia included displays of the amazing new machines.


Availability of the cheap cut nails helped give birth to a transformation in American homebuilding; and the transformation was strengthened by the advent of the even cheaper and stronger wire-nails. In today's world, every American homeowner expects his home to be built out of "two by fours", and other dimensional lumber, as if this technology always existed. But this cheap and affordable method of homebuilding was only made possible by the shift away from precious hand-forged nails toward the strong, cheap, flexible nails which we take so much for granted in our modern world.

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