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Interesting article by Gregory LeFever on the history of nails.


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Yeah, once upon a time nails/hardware was` a BIG DEAL. As a collector, nails/hardware is still a BIG DEAL if its period even though most of it was imported from England.

Colonist were forbidden from operating foundries, i suspect there were several good reasons for this. One was economic, the guild system was very powerful in england and even more important were political considerations. Cannons were cast from brass and theres NO TELLING where that could lead!


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Thanks for the article. Very interesting. I always figured if you burnt down a house for the nails the'd either melt or be too soft to use. Maybe not.-Al


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yeah, kinda gives one an indication of just how valuable metal was. Here is the link to the law  passed in 1645. page 291


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For those not familair with the local economy that lead to the widespread abandonment of "plantations", it was the result of tobacco being the dominant crop.

Tobacco is sufficiently hard on the soil - and land was so relatively cheap - that those who were growing the crop were continually acquiring new land and abandoning the old and moving on.  It was not unusual for a tract to be "worn out" in three years, and so the growing of tobacco involved as much a forrestry job as a farming job since land  clearing was a constant demand to create new fields. Anyone who has ever dug even a modest stump by hand can appreciate the labor involved in clearing 5 or 10 acres of trees.

A typcial landowner possessed a tract ranging from five to fifty acres and was dependent upon slaves to work this land.

Also, the "plantations" at issue were oftem quite modest; typically a small one room or two room cabin - not at all like "Gone with the Wind".


kerry grubb

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anyone interested in a brief history lesson check this site This place is about 15 min. from my house. Its privately owned and has been undergoing restoration in the recent years to the point that they now lease shop space to an artisan blacksmith.
Well, James & I have gone around about nails before. I have a different view on the idea of nails being terribly costly & precious. The period I know is the seventeenth century; what happens after that is out of my league.

I would point out that the cheapest & most ordinary furniture of the day is the board chest, or carved box. Both of which are nailed together, quickly & easily. Both were just about ALWAYS fitted with locks as well. As were finer, joined chests & cupboards.

Here's a specific record from Essex County, Massachusetts from Ipswich in 1662:

?My ant Tutels a count of worke and other things? paid for nailes at Mr. William Paines 300 at 8d. per hondered, 2s; for nailes at Mr. Robert Paines, 5s; for nailes at Mr. Jowits the last yeare, 200 at 12d. per hondred, 2s;  [in George Francis Dow, Records and Files of the Quarterly Court Essex County, Massachusetts, 8 volumes, (Salem, Massachusetts: Essex Institute, 1911-21) 2:362-366.]

These nails were being bought from merchants, not from smiths, thus the smith got even less for them...

From the same set of court records:

Ipswich, Nov 1674
Indenture, dated Sept. 29, 1674, Hugh March, son of Hugh March of Newbury, of his own will and with the consent of his parents was apprenticed to Benjamine Lowle, of Newbury, blacksmith, for six years, to learn the trade of a blacksmith, and said Lowle was to perfect him in writing and casting accounts, in reading English and in the trade of making or mending locks. Wit: John Kent and Robert Holmes. (5: 417-419)

There were blacksmiths in most every New England town by mid-17th century. Their apprenticeship contracts, like that above, often refer to the apprentice being taught to ?keep a book? or something to that effect.

The Saugus Iron Works, called "Hammersmith" at the time, ran in Essex County starting about mid-1640s. Production there included pig iron, wrought iron and end-products as well ? pots, kettles, skillets, firebacks and salt-pans. There was a blacksmith there making edge tools also.

It had begun in Braintree, Massachusetts earlier than that, but that site was quickly abandoned and the works moved to Lynn. A recreation of it is now run as a Nation Parks historic site =

My take on the Virginia plantation legislation doesn?t focus on the nails, but on the idea that they wanted to keep people from destroying abandoned houses. If nails were expensive, the government would not be giving them to people!

My two cents.

(whoops - the name of that county doesn't get past some filters here)


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Hey Peter,
Well, the problem with the theory that " they wanted to keep people from destroying abandoned houses" is, it  ignores why homeowners would burn their buildings down when vacating the ol homestead for greener pastures. Naturally, it could be that Va had some arsonists/firebugs in the group but surely not enough to cause a law to be passed, therefore it seems reasonable to assume that there had be be some reason for this practice. What was it?

The phrase "receive so many nailes as may be computed by 2 indifferent men" is important to me because if true, means the govt went to alot of trouble to assure the homeowner that he would be justly compensated.

It seems reasonable to assume that there were blacksmith shops in most towns in the southern colonies as well but what if the homeowner was going to the frontier where there were no smith's? Travel in those days of even a few miles was a major event as the road system was primitive and hauling metal, particularly iron, most likely meant a wagon/cart of some kind.

Whats the deal on that
(whoops - the name of that county doesn't get past some filters here), i dont get it.
I agree that there were people leaving plantations and taking nails with them. That does not mean nails were expensive, it only means that they were being salvaged.

Various New England records clearly indicate the value of nails, and they are not outrageous. Textiles were more a measure of wealth; again the records prove that.

As far as the homeowners going to the frontier; I don?t know the settlement patterns for Virginia; but if it?s like New England, most settlements were along the waterways, i.e. the coast of Massachusetts, the Connecticut River and coastal Connecticut. Rhode Island plantations were near water as well, as was all of the seventeenth-century settlements in what is now New Hampshire & Maine. Hence moving on water is easier than moving on land.

I say, nails-schmails. They are cheap, furniture built with them is cheap. Still can be nice, but cheap. If ironwork was all that hot stuff, then the blacksmiths would have been top bananas in their towns. And the records show them to be ordinary tradesmen, no particular status achieved.

My note about the filter on this forum is that you can?t write the name of the northernmost county in Massachusetts here. It gets truncated to ?Es? and leaves off the last 3 letters which are s  e  x .

Your volley James. By the way, if you want to hear the worst interpretation about nails? great status in early New England, go on a tour of Salem. It?s awful.


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My own father remembered people burning down buildings to salvage the nails. If you have no money it doesn't matter how cheap the nails are. If it is 30 miles to a town where they sell nails it is easier to reclaim them than make the walk.
The law about burning buildings to salvage the nails was over 20 years earlier than the dates Peter gave for nail prices, a lot could have happened in those 20 years.
Maybe burning down the house had become a ritual that people did before moving on. It was probably kind of fun. Maybe they just liked The Talking Heads. Maybe they were mimicking Cortez.
It is always interesting to try to figure out why people did what they did so may years ago.
Enjoying the speculation


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Essex huh, gee wiz, thats weird, lol. let me try lower case, essex, nope, not gonna happen.  Oh well, that county doesnt exist on this forum. I notice too if you post a pic and its to large, it deletes entire post along with the photo.

Good Discussion, it's often difficult to figure out various details about what happened so long ago.  It's quite common for folks to reach different conclusions when looking at very spotty records, plus they wrote "funny" as well, hard to tell what exactly they meant.

Locks, yeah, its always a treat to see period hardware on a piece, particularly if it has a lock. I have often wondered if local Smith's ever produced them as its alot more complicated with many small parts.


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Well dang, another entire post deleted because photo was in wrong format? I'll try again with url link instead of pic, gee wiz thats annoying. ESSEX!

Not to change the subject but since we are talking early iron, i'd like to discuss forged butterfly hinges. I used to wonder why 18th century forged iron butterfly hinges on drop leaf tables rarely survive, i dont wonder anymore. In addition to being very thin/delicate, theres another problem. If you click the link, then the pic on the left, it will enlarge. Notice the right wing of hinge wraps around the barrel/pin of hinge and then is forge welded to the underside of hinge. What happens at some point is, that weld begins to separate and when that happens, that hinge aint long for this world. I wonder, can that weld be restored-rewelded without destroying the hinge, or no?