“For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For want of a horse the rider was lost,
For want of a rider the battle was lost,
For want of a battle the Kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a nail.”
The above English parable has been around since at least 1640, since that’s when it was first published. My maternal grandmother used to quote the parable to me when I was little, trying unsuccessfully to ingrain morals and good sense into my developing mind.
Nails were actually a precious commodity in the early days of this country, when they were still handmade. Old, unused houses and barns were often burned down just to salvage the nails from the ashes. Poor folks often salvaged nails whenever possible over the last couple centuries to avoid having to buy them. I know that anyone who grew up during the depression was so inclined, including my father. We NEVER threw nails away when I was a kid, but saved them and straightened them for re-use. If my memory serves me correctly, there were a few salvaged nails used in my own house as we built it many years ago.
When we tore the back ell off the farm house where I grew up, to replace it with new construction, I saved some of the old square nails, The house was started in 1865 and finished in 1866, so I know the age of the nails precisely. No doubt they were made upriver at Wheeling, West Virginia, then the nail capitol of the world. I’d originally planned to make rustic crafts and primitive furniture as a hobby in my old age, so that was my reason for saving them. I’ve kept them in two buckets in the basement these last 20 years or so. There’s perhaps a gallon-and-a-half in each bucket.
I really need to clean and organize my basement workshop, and will probably try to do so this winter. Maybe that will keep me from going stir-crazy on cold windy days when my ears and old bones can’t handle it outdoors. It was wet, cold and windy outside today, so I gathered up some empty plastic fruit and nut jars from items purchased at Chinamart the last few months and headed to the basement. I sat the first bucket of nails on an overturned mud bucket and began sorting. I knew that I’d have three sizes of cut nails, but I found that I had even more. As it turns out, I’ve got 3d, 4d, 6d, and 8d nails, and a few 20d spikes. I also have a small duke’s mixture of more modern wire nails and spikes from patches and repairs over the decades since the original construction.
The framing was under-sized pine post and beam with in-filled studs inserted into shallow mortises. The frame was held together with oak pins, but an occasional 20d spike was used here and there. (For those who don’t know, the “d” stands for “penny,” and the number is the cost in pennies for 100 of that size nail back in fifteenth century England.) The 3d and 4d nails were used to nail the lath to the inside of the walls for plaster. The 6d and 8d were used mostly on the tongue and groove flooring, if I remember, and on any original sections of siding.
Burning the houses in the old days left most of the nails still straight, but I didn’t have that option, since we were saving the front of the house. Instead, we had to pry the boards loose with mattocks and wrecking bars and pull the nails manually. That put a bend in many of them. From past experience in reusing square nails, I know that they have a crystalline structure to the steel, unlike modern wire nails. As a result, they break easily when you try to straighten them. That was probably another advantage of burning, as it would anneal the nails (make them softer). I’m thinking that it might be wise to put these nails through a fire before I try to straighten them.
One thing is for sure, I’ll have a lot of time invested in these nails before I can ever use them. It will take time to anneal them and time to straighten them, but first, time to sort them. The time will be compounded by the fact that there are many more 3d and 4d’s than I remembered, and each one must be looked at separately. Oh well, what’s time to a retired old geezer (especially when it’s cold outside)? © 2016