Flooring Essentials: A History of the Lowly Nail

The use of nails dates back to at least Ancient Egypt, with bronze nails dating 3400 BC. There are a number of Biblical references to nails, including a story in Judges, where a wife drove a nail into her husband’s temple while he was asleep, and of course, nails were used for the crucifixion of Christ. Until 1800, all nails were hand made or forged, and were made by someone known as a nailor, or nailer. Slitters were the workmen whose job was to cut up iron bars to just the right size for nailers to take and further shape and make heads and points. Manual slitters were eventually replaced in the late 16th century by slitting mills, which saved a lot of time and effort.

Making a wrought-iron nails meant that iron ore had to be heated with carbon and then shaped into square rods. From there, a blacksmith would heat the rod in a forge, and when the iron was hot enough, he would taper the end of the bar while being careful to keep the cross section square. The blacksmith would then cut off the tapered part, inserting it into a nail-heading tool that had a square hole. The top of the tapered iron would stick out just enough so that it could be hammered out and downward, and thus would create a square nail head.

During the time of the American Revolution, England was the leading manufacturer of nails, worldwide. The American colonies had difficulty obtaining nails mainly due to the fact that they were expensive. They were forced to come up with their own nail-making setups in their own homes, with the family members all working on making nails nights and during bad weather…for their own use and for bartering purposes.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “In our private pursuits it is a great advantage that every honest employment is deemed honorable. I am myself a nail maker.” Some stories show the growth of the nail making trade in the Thirteen Colonies being held back by the Iron Act, which prohibited new slitting mills in America, but it is thought that the Act was never actually enforced. Wrought iron nails continued to be produced into the 19th century, but with the advent of softer nails for easier manufacturing and use, the wrought iron nails were reserved for purposes where the softer nails just would not suffice.

When used with today’s flooring, the inclusion of wrought head nails lends a look of authentic history to any floor, as an antique process that, while no longer the mainstay, brings back a vestige of the past in an artistic manner.