The Nail: Patriotic Symbol or Humble Tool?

// art, cut nail, hand forged nail, hand made nails, history, literature, restoration project, rose head nail, wire nail, wrought iron // 0 Comments

Since the dawn of its creation, the humble nail has achieved much. It has evolved drastically to suit our every need, from the simple hand wrought nails to the wire nails formed in the late 18th century, and it is fair to say that its journey has been one of length and fruition across a variety of levels. The first evidence of large-scale nail making originates in Egypt, with bronze nails dating back to 3400 BC at the earliest. Even age-old literature gives acknowledgement to this modest implement, The Bible peppered with both references and citations alike.

As with most things, the crafting of nails started out being a purely hand forged process. The tools of the trade were simple: forge, anvil, hammer and iron at the most. The method itself was the gruelling part. To begin with, the iron ore was heated to melting point until it formed a dense spongy mass within the forge. This would then be poured into moulds to cool into square rods, with the metal produced given the title of ‘wrought iron’. A reheating process would follow, before the blacksmith cut off a nail length and hammered all four sides of the softened end to form a point- the driving end of the nail. This would end with the hot nail being inserted into a hole within the anvil. Four glancing blows of a hammer would form a rose head, thus completing the journey from raw material to building implement. Not one nail made through this process is the same, which is one of the reasons that hand forged nails are still popular to this day. Though not as popular as the later mentioned wire nail, they are more often used on restoration projects within old properties to give a slightly more rustic, unmanufactured look that wire nails cannot achieve. We supply these here.  

The nail was destined for more, however, and soon became a bartering system throughout medieval England. The coinage ‘penny’ in reference to nails originates from this, describing the price placed upon one hundred of the object upon trading. Though they were a valuable source of income within England, they were also desperately sought after at the time of the American Revolution. People throughout the American colonies hunted for nails using any means necessary, going so far as to burn abandoned buildings to the ground. Once reduced to ash, nearby villagers would flock to the site as vultures would to carrion. They would eagerly pick out the small treasures before returning home, pockets filled, the iron still hot.

However, this was not the only way society strived to overcome poverty using nails. Using a far more honest method, many families began setting up small sites for nail manufacture within their homes, either by the fireplace or in the back yard. During either the evening or a day of bad weather, the entire family would come together at their makeshift forge and spend hours crafting their own nails for either personal use or barter. This was not a past time limited to people of small means, however. Vice president Thomas Jefferson took part in the craft, proudly stating in a letter that “I am myself a nail-maker…” and that “…my new trade of nail making is to me in this country what an additional title of nobility or the ensigns of a new order are in Europe.” (Thomas Jefferson, 1795.)

The hand forged nail soon evolved into the cut nail, with the manufacturing process shaping into something more automated and far less time consuming than previously. Though the machines used still had to be manned by either men or women, they cut down the time taken considerably, meaning the end product could be sold for less than before. The process was first created in America, and involved the cutting of large sheets of iron into the required shape, with workers still in place to ensure that fibres of iron still ran down the sides of the finished instrument. Cut nails, otherwise known as square nails, are still used today but on a far lesser scale than in the early 1800’s. People mainly use them for historical renovations or heavy-duty jobs, a far cry from their mass Birmingham manufacture in the 1860’s.

The aforementioned decline in the creation of cut nails was due to the penultimate nail in the evolution cycle- the renowned wire nail that we know and love today. Formed from coils of wire, the earliest wire nails were not made with heavy construction in mind, being used instead to help create pocket book frames and cigar boxes in the mid 1800’s. Even in the 1890s, the majority of builders still chose to use the cut nails due to their extreme holding power. By 1913, this all changed, and 90% of all manufactured nails were indeed wire nails, due to their cheap and entirely automated production. Not only this, but they were also produced in a wide range of specialisations, which the previous two types of nail had not. This meant customers could find more uses for the wire nail than the cut or hand forged, pushing it to the forefront of the modern manufactory industry. 

Though used as both a medium of exchange, a building essential, and a provident symbol within early literature, the nail has had one more major purpose since its establishment: art. The idea originated from the Stock im Eisen situated in Vienna, a tree covered in nails, which inspired the idea of Nail Men. Created to fundraise and inspire an impoverished Germany and Austria during the First World War, the charities that partook would have an array of sculptures carved from wood, with variations through from knights to bears, set up for the public. The nails offered to the public would reflect the donation they made to the charity, with certain pay systems created for each single event. This idea came into accordance with the nail placement as well, with certain areas costing more or less across the sculpture. For instance, it may cost more to have your nails featured across the knight’s shield than across his right sleeve. People across both countries were pressured through mass advertising to take part in this dramatic show of love for ones country, and the nail quickly became a patriotic symbol across the majority of both German and Austrian society.

Thus the modest nail has travelled many paths to reach where it is today: a steadfast feature in both homes and works of art alike.


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The Suffolk Latch Company is based in the picturesque town of Clare on the Suffolk/Essex Border. We specialise in the supply of traditional hand forged black ironmongery.

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