Rio History: What’s This

Special to the PRESS

Dave, a local treasure hunter, found an old wooden box while hunting behind the dunes near the Cameron-Willacy County a few years back. The box was so decrepit that it literally fell apart as he dug it out of the sand. But amazingly, the old square nails that had secured the boards of the box proved to be in pristine condition. After one look at the crudeness of the nails, I knew I needed an expert’s opinion to confirm their age.

Probably around 80 years or more,” opined Matt Moreau, former owner of Pico Hardware on South Padre Island, as he examined the find.­

“See how crude they are? These were obviously hand forged cut nails that were commonly used in the construction of shipping and packing crates. The blacksmith had a special part of the anvil that was used for sizing and shaping. A good “nailer” could produce hundreds of nails a day. It was hard work under adverse conditions though, and the job was often performed by indentured servants or slave labor. Nails were so expensive to make that recycling proved quite profitable. Whenever an old building was demolished, men would bid for the right to remove the used nails. Bent ones were straightened and the nails were sorted by size and weight,” Matt explained.

Thomas Jefferson had a nail making operation in his blacksmith shop on Mulberry Row at Monticello. The nails forged here provided a source of cash income while he restored the depleted soil of his farms. Nail-rod, shipped from Philadelphia, was hammered into nails ranging in size from six-pennies to twenty-pennies. (Pennyweight originally meant cost of nails per hundred, but due to price fluctuations over the centuries, pennyweight now reflects a standard size of nail).

In 1796 Jefferson accepted delivery of a new nail cutting machine. Four-penny brad nails could now be made from hoop iron. The nailery was quite profitable in its early years, supplying nails throughout Pennsylvania. Management problems and the competition of cheaper imported nails later made it only an intermittent source of income.

In his journal, Jefferson wrote: “Children till 10 years old to serve as nurses. From 10 to 16, the boys make nails, the girls spin. At 16 go into the ground, become farmers, or learn trades.”

Fourteen young black men, their ages varying from 10 to twenty-one, worked hammer and billow to produce between 8,000 to 10,000 nails a day. From 1794 to 1796, Jefferson calculated the daily output of the young nail makers, comparing the weight of the nail-rod used against the final count of nails produced. Most of the slaves who began their working lives in the nailery went on to learn other trades.

“Moses and Joe Fosset,” Jefferson wrote, “became blacksmiths. Davy, Lewis, and Shepherd became carpenters, Barnaby was a cooper, and James Hubbard learned the charcoal burning trade.”

The aptly named Wormley, was reported to have become, “A very successful gardener,” wrote Jefferson. While Burwell became Monticello’s butler, as well as a noted painter and glazier.

Later, in the Eighteenth Century, inventors came up with a machine that stamped out thousands of nails per hour. An example of that machine is on display in a Pennsylvania museum and still works. The old square nail is still available in many forms but is used primarily in concrete work today.

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