Monday, August 23, 2010

Nails In The Coffin

My husband Erik and I just recently finished (sort of) a pine box. Our re-enacting unit has grown large enough that we've decided to start cooking for ourselves, instead of going out and mooching from the other units. Erik and I are very intense about re-enacting and being period correct, but we're willing to sacrifice a small amount of correctness for the sake of our health. Hence, the pine box. We made it especially so that it could hold and hide our cooler. As I said, we're intense about re-enacting, but if we're going to have any fresh meat with us, we're going to play it safe and keep it in a cooler.

I'll be adding entries and pictures about the making of the box soon, but first I want to talk about nails. We don't really think about them all that much these days. You go to the store, you buy them, you use them. They're small, cheap, and handy. They're also relatively easy to make in this day and age. However, this was not the case during the 1700s.

Up until the tail end of the 1700s, each nail had to be painstakingly hand-crafted. Originally from RICS Building Conservation Journal, "For nail making, iron ore was heated with carbon to form a dense spongy mass of metal which was then fashioned into the shape of square rods and left to cool. The metal produced was wrought iron. After re-heating the rod in a forge, the blacksmith would cut off a nail length and hammer all four sides of the softened end to form a point. Then the nail maker would insert the hot nail into a hole in a nail header or anvil and with four glancing blows of the hammer would form the rosehead (a shallow pyramid shape)."

(from: Glasgow Steel Nail )

As you can see, this was no easy task! The blacksmith had to shape his metal into square rods, and then cut off sections and draw out the metal until it formed a point at one end - and then he had to manually form the head. Nails of this time were square, and really held things together well. The heads of these nails would be square-ish, and would have the pyramid shape described above. Here are a few pictures of period nails:

(Pictures from The Harp Gallery)

Square nails actually have a much better hold than round ones (round wire nails weren't made until the end of the 1800s). It's no wonder every village had a blacksmith! I read somewhere in my perusings that when a family moved, they would often burn down their old house in order to retrieve the nails from it, which gives you a good indication of how valued nails were during the time period. At the end of the 1700s, nails were being cut from sheets of steel, which made them much more rectangular. A hundred years after that, steel wire was introduced and the modern nail was born. Although much, much cheaper, the modern nail just doesn't have the same holding power as a good old square nail!

For a comparison of nails, check out this Historic Preservation Research post by The University of Vermont.

P.S. Antiques dealers and historians alike use our knowledge of nails to help identify the time period of pieces of furniture. If a piece of furniture was constructed using cut nails, researchers know that this piece was most likely made some time during the 1800s. Neat, huh?

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