The Nail Market During the Colonial Period

Nails for the Armoury's siding.

Nails for the Armoury’s siding.

This week’s blog entry by Master Blacksmith, Kenneth Schwarz, is a follow-up to his recent post describing process of making nails. 
Understanding the process employed by blacksmiths for making nails provides little insight into commercial nail making during the eighteenth century.  Colonial Williamsburg’s small-scale approach to making nails reinforces simplistic notions of colonial manufacture and the idea that colonial settlers sought a jack-of-all-trades, self-sufficient lifestyle.  The realities of our colonial economy are much more complex.  We can examine that complexity through the manufacture and distribution of nails in the period.

By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, nail-making had become a specialized industry in advanced economies.  The benefits of specialization were evident, and could be quantified- as Adam Smith described in “The Wealth of Nations”:

The division of labor, by reducing every man’s business to to some one simple operation, and by making this simple operation the sole employment of his life, necessarily increases very much the dexterity of the workman. A common smith, who, though accustomed to handle the hammer, has never been used to make nails, if upon some particular occasion he is obliged to attempt it, will scarce, I am assured, be able to make above two or three hundred nails in a day, and those, too very bad ones.  A smith who has been accustomed to make nails, but whose sole or principal business has not been that of a nailer, can seldom with the utmost diligence make more than eight hundred or a thousand nails in a day.  I have seen several boys under twenty years of age who had never exercised any other trade but that of making nails, and who, when they exerted themselves could make, each of them, upwards of two thousand three hundred nails in a day.  The same person blows the bellows, stirs or mends the fire as there is occasion, heats the iron, and forges every part of the nail…”

Much of this kind of hardware manufacture was concentrated in the West Midlands of England- a region rich in iron, coal, laborers, and water for transportation and power.  While the colonies were also rich in natural resources like iron and fuel, we lacked the large population centers where a robust labor market brought the cost of manufacture down.  By some accounts, there were nearly 50,000 nailers in the West Midlands by the end of the eighteenth century.  Assuming that each of these nailers was capable of making 2,000 nails a day, nail production in the Midlands could approach a potential 100,000,000 nails per day.

By contrast, colonial America’s largest city, Philadelphia, had a total population of about 30,000 individuals.  Throughout the colonial period, reasonably priced English nails were readily available in coastal cities, limiting the need to develop a substantial nail-making industry in the colonies.  That is not to say that nails were not made in the colonies, but rather that nails were readily available and reasonably priced as imports.  In James Anderson’s accounts, nails are made in small quantities to fasten hardware that has been forged in the shop, but rarely does Anderson supply more than a few dozen nails to a customer until the wartime economy shifts demand to local producers.  The commonwealth of Virginia was a large consumer of nails during the war, and after advertising for “nailers” to work in the shop, Anderson reported “I have eight lads that’s nailers…”  and that they produced “…twenty five thousand nails a week…

The pre-war importation of nails can be noted by looking at ads run by local merchants, or surviving business accounts from the day.  John Greenhow, Williamsburg merchant frequently advertised in the Virginia Gazette that, among other merchandise, he carried “…nails of all sorts and sizes…”.  William Allason, merchant of Falmouth, Virginia recorded in one inventory that he had about 750,000 nails on hand.  These were the product of workers back in England.

Another element of the nail trade that many of our guests find surprising is the number of women involved in the trade.  Because nail-making was a fairly quick and simple process, and because the capital costs of establishing a nail-making workshop were modest, women and young children sometimes became nailers to supplement a family income.  William Hutton wrote in 1741:

The art of nail-making is one of the most ancient among us; we may safely charge its antiquity with four figures.   The manufacturers are so scattered round the country, that we cannot travel far, in any direction, out of the sound of the nail-hammer. But Birmingham, like a powerful magnet, draws the produce of the anvil to herself.   When I first approached her, from Walsall, in 1741, I was surprized at the prodigious number of blacksmiths shops upon the road; and could not conceive how a country, though populous, could support so many people of the same occupation. In some of these shops I observed one, or more females…. wielding the hammer with all the grace of their sex. The beauties of their face were rather eclipsed by the smut of the anvil; ….   Struck with the novelty, I inquired, “Whether the ladies in this country shod horses?” but was answered, with a smile, “They are nailers.”

-Contributed by Kenneth Schwarz, Master Blacksmith


  1. says

    I do trust all of the ideas you have presented in your post. They are really convincing and can certainly work. Still, the posts are very brief for beginners. May you please prolong them a little from subsequent time? Thank you for the post.

    • CW Archaeology says

      Thanks for the suggestion, and we appreciate your interest. We are trying to strike a balance between getting too in-depth and being too brief. Fortunately, with multiple blog-authors we are able to present some variety. Please know that you can always ask for clarification if we have glossed over points that seem important to you.

  2. Ken Schwarz says

    Rick- Your observation is correct. Our job is to “interpret” history- to take a set of facts, draw conclusions about what those facts mean, and relate our story based on our reading of the facts. It can sometimes be a tricky business. I will relate another nail story to give an example of how a fact can be “misinterpreted”.

    I often hear the statement that “Nails were so expensive that when moving, people would burn their houses down to save the nails.”

    This is partially based in fact. In the 1640’s, here in Virginia, the legislature passed an act that “…forbade the burning of buildings for the nails…”. Some historians jumped to the conclusion that buildings were burned to save nails, because nails were horribly expensive. This seems like a logical explanation for such a drastic act, until you consider the circumstances in which an entire building would be worth less than the nails used to build it. If you look at construction practices in the 1610’s and 1620’s, it was a pretty common practice to underpin a structure with wood sills placed directly on the ground, or with posts set upright into holes in the ground. If you have ever built a structure by that method (without pressure treated lumber), you might find that in 10 or 15 years (or around 1640), the wood sills, or posts, suffer from rot or bug infestations that compromise the integrity of the structure. If the structure is dangerously unsound, it might be reasonable to burn what remains, and salvage the iron hardware which would survive such a fire. At least you walk away with something for less effort than pulling each nail individually from the wood.

    The act went on to specify that if you had a building that you intended to burn for the nails, you could have two honest men estimate the number of nails in the structure, and petition the legislature. The legislature would give you the estimated number of nails in exchange for NOT burning the building. I suspect that this law may have been aimed at controlling wildfires more than at the cost of nails. (on certain mornings this month here in Williamsburg, we can smell the smoke of a wildfire presently burning in North Carolina. Given the destrcutive consequences of a wildfire today, you might imagine the damage caused when fire fighting technology was not so well developed.)

    This also illustrates how one fact can lead to a logical conclusion, until another related fact requires you to rethink the original assumptions. We could probably do a whole blog entry on the mythology of nail use in colonial times.

  3. Mary Anne Blackburn says

    On a tour of a very early home in old Salem, the tour guide indicated nails were valuable and expensive in the earliest days of the Colony and people who decorated their doors with nails did it to show how wealthy they were since they could “waste” nails for mere decoration. They indicated this was the origin of the term “dead as a doornail” as nails used for merely decorative purposes were “dead” as they had been used for no real purpose.

    • Ken Schwarz says

      Mary Anne- Thanks for your contribution. We have another interesting theory to include on our list!

      These kinds of stories are often based on romantic notions of our past, or are a product of a modern mindset making assumptions about our past. They make good stories and the good stories eventually become accepted as fact. That is how they end up being told by museum guides- over the years even including some of us here at Colonial Williamsburg!

      That is why we continue our research and training efforts here at Colonial Williamsburg. As we find new information, it changes the assumptions that we had in the past. The Armoury is a classic example of that. In the 1970’s and early 80’s we designed the Anderson shop with research that, at the time, was on the cutting edge. Over the last ten years, we have uncovered hundreds of pages of historical information related to this building, and related structures. This new information has radically changed our assumptions about the environment in which the armoury was built, and how it looked. The current reconstruction will present our current understanding of the building. Undoubtably, future research will identify elements that we get wrong, and the updating process will continue. History does not stand still. Our understanding continues to evolve.

      Understanding the limits of interesting stories that cannot be traced back to a primary source is important to good historical presentation. That is why I like to collect the stories, and search for a primary source.

      Any more theories for our list readers?

      • says

        As a 20+ year reenactor and tour guide at a local living history museum ( I’ve delved into endless research and I’ve run into numerous explanations, stories, theories, ryhmns, poems, songs, etc. on many different stories. And when it is one’s responsibility to educate the public, it is often times very difficult to seperate fact from fiction. “the research continues”!

  4. Kerry Lancaster says

    Ken.I am familiar with the term ” clenched nails” and have seen them bent back into a doors many times. I have heard them term dead as a door nail was called because the nail could no longer be used. A lot of small well meaning historical docents use this story. Is this so.? Just curious.

    • Kenneth Schwarz says

      Kerry- I know that the term “dead as a doornail” was used in very early times, but I have never discovered the origin of the term. I have seen a number of guesses- each with its own merit- but I have not found an early explanation of the term. The historian in me can admit to the plausibility of each of the theories, but I would like an early source to convince me of how the term originated. Any of you readers have some concrete early source?

  5. Cari Skuse says

    Ken, I also enjoyed your post on nails. I found it very interesting that most nails were made in England instead of in the colonies (with the exception of war time).
    When nails are made in by hand, are they all made from the same type of metal or where different types of nails made from different materials?
    Thank you for all the interesting details!

    • Kenneth Schwarz says

      Cari- Nails are made primarily of iron. Iron is valued for its toughness and durability, as well as its low cost. Nails were the cheapest fastener available in construction and iron is strong enough to be driven into wood with only an occasional need to pre-drill the hole to minimize splitting. Low cost and ease of use make iron nails desirable in construction.

      Occasionally, copper nails are used in ship building. Ships are sometimes sheathed with copper below the waterline to preserve the wood from worms and barnacles. Copper nails were used to attach the sheathing, because iron and copper in contact with one another promote corrosion. Copper on copper is stable and will make a tight seal.

      There are also upholstery tacks that are iron shanked with brass heads (yes, this will set up a corrosive condition, but it was done nonetheless). An iron shank allows the nail to be driven without pre-drilling, the brass head is for ornament.

      • CWResearch says

        Rick, you can add your own icon to your comments by registering with the Gravatar website ( under the same email address you use for your comments. From there you will be able to upload an image that will appear whenever you comment. The instructions are also under the comment box on each page, in “To add a personalized icon to your comment.”

  6. Kerry Lancaster says

    Ken,Once again we’re blown away for such interesting facts you and the whole project staff bring to all of us on 18th century trade people. I was just thinking about your article on nail making and and how we take for granted such a small item that does so much. I would take it that the tiny ships like those that came to Jamestown had plenty of hand wrought nails in them as well as joints.Could enlighten us on nails for cordwainers and different types used by the housewrights.
    I think we can truly say that nails still are a part of holding America together. HUZZAH !

    • Ken Schwarz says

      Kerry- Thanks for the positive feedback. My colleagues and I share a passion for learning about these subtleties of our colonial past, and for bringing them to life in the work that we do. It is rewarding to us to know that our guests share our interest.

      I agree that we take nails- and many other small articles that contribute to our comfort and well being- for granted. I suspect that our colonial counterparts did as well. As long as John Greenhow had “nails of all sorts and sizes” on his shelf, it was easy to think that they would always be there.

      I like your suggestion of discussing the various types of nails that we will be using in the Armoury construction, and will make that a topic for a future entry. I may even be able to sneak in a bit on the nails that we make for the cordwainers.

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