All about nails…

Here at Campus Archaeology we collect a lot of nails. They come in varying sizes and shapes, and can be found across the historic campus. Often nails found from the 19th century are coated with rust after years of sitting in the ground. This can make it difficult to determine their shape or construction. Regardless of how bad they are, we collect them all.

One of the questions we get is whether we can actually learn anything from a nail. Production of nails has varied throughout time, and changed drastically with industrialization. By looking at the shape of the nail and the way is was made we can determine the time period it is from. During the 1700’s and early 1800’s in the United States hand-wrought nails were the most common. These were made one at a time by blacksmiths. A square iron rod would be heated, and the end shaped into a point on four sides. The rod was then reheated and the end was cut off. In order to create the head, the blacksmith would insert the nail into a hole in the anvil and flatten the top using glancing blows.

Thomas Visser from A Field Guide to New England Barns and Farm Buildings

Beginning in the 1790’s through the early 1800’s a number of machines were invented in the US for making cut nails. The earliest machine cut nails in a guillotine fashion, the taper formed by wiggling the bar back and forth. The head was added by hand, using a hammer and glancing blows to create it like the iron wrought nails. These are referred to as Cut Nail Type A. In the 1810’s, a new machine was invented that automated the entire process. The machine flipped the bar after each cut in order to ensure even sides. The cutter was set to create a taper, rather than requiring human intervention. Finally, the machine gripped the cut nail and created a head. The entire production became a single automated process. These are referred to as Cut Nail Type B. Distinguishing these types of nails requires knowledge of the process of construction. Type A have diagonal burrs due to the wiggling required to create the taper, whereas Type B is even on all sides since the metal was flipped on each stroke. The Type B nails are the most popular form throughout the 19th century.

During the 1880’s, machines were developed to produce nails from inexpensive steel wire. This is the first time that nails begin to have the round shafts that we are more accustomed to seeing. The wire is fed into a machine that cuts it lengthwise, tapers the point and hammers the opposite end to create a head in one stage. Unlike previous machines requiring human aid or multiple steps, this is a single stage. These steel wire nails can be made much faster and cheaper. By 1886, 10% of all nails were round bodied steel wire, and by 1913 90% of all nails are this type.

Nails found on campus by CAPMSU

The question then is so what? Why do we care about nails? Since we can date nails so well they are helpful in determining the age of sites that we find. If we discover a site with only Type A cut nails we know that it was likely an early farmstead dating before the university period. Type B cut nails tell us that it was probably one of the early campus buildings prior to the turn of the 20th century. It is also relevant because we know that students were in charge of constructing and maintaining the first campus buildings. Knowing what students worked with helps us better understand what it was like to be part of the early campus. Try working with square cut nails and you will quickly see that this task isn’t easy!


Author: Katy Meyers Emery


Allen. All About Nails. Appalachian Blacksmith Association.

Glasgow Steel Mill. History of Nail Making.

4 thoughts on “All about nails…”

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  • What are really cool research projects guys have worked on in the past. I hope there’s other people that are as interested in this as I am. I am someone that spent a lot of time doing metal detecting and often trying to figure out what time. I am in. I have found this very helpful if you are other like-minded people out there that would like to learn more I would be interested in talking to them please someone who can reply with her contact information if you have questions or want to collaborate on things that we have found.

  • I have an historical bench dating to Henry VIII / Catherine of Aragon time from the early 1500’s. I recently discovered two square sided unused steel nails inside the bench.
    I would like to mail you one or both of them in the hope that you could establish the century that it was made.
    I would provide return postage as I would like to return them to where they were found.

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