Nails are among the most commonly occurring artifacts found on nineteenth and twentieth century archaeological sites, yet their importance is often overlooked. Unlike ceramics and glass, nails left in the ground for a prolonged period of time become heavily corroded and malformed, and are just not that pleasurable to study or easy to identify. But nails, like all artifacts, have a story to tell – about the people who made them, the people who built with them, and about the structures they held together.
Most nails recovered from archaeological sites are Cheeto-shaped hunks of rusted iron, but sometimes we get lucky and find nails in exceptionally good condition. Such was the case at Eutaw Manor in Herring Run Park. The fire that destroyed Eutaw in 1865 melted and damaged many of the site’s ceramic and glass artifacts, but the opposite was true for the nails and other iron objects in the house. In this case, the fire further tempered the nails, making them more resistant to rust through a process called annealing. As a result, we have recovered a large collection of well-preserved nails from a house that stood for nearly 100 years, and likely underwent at least a few major renovations by its various owners.
By analyzing the size, shape, and style of the nails recovered from various locations within the Eutaw Manor House, we can determine their specific use, be it common construction nails (above), long flooring nails, or short roofing nails (below).
The technology of nail production also evolved over time. The earliest nails found on colonial sites are the hand-wrought variety, which were produced individually and in their entirety by a blacksmith. These nails were wrought from nail rods or from nail splits cut from a plate. Smiths hammered the red-hot iron rods into a point, then placed them in a vise, hammering down to produce a head. By the late eighteenth century, a method was devised to produce nails from sheets of iron plates, using a vise saw to cut the nails into uniform shapes. At first, the vise was operated by hand, and later by water or steam power. These early machine-cut nails were still individually hand-headed by a blacksmith. Eventually, the technology evolved to produce the entire nail (head and shank) with a nail cutting machine.
The last step in the evolution of nail technology came in the mid-to-late nineteenth century with the introduction of the wire nail. Wire nails were produced from coils of wire, usually drawn through a series of dies to reach a specific diameter, then cut into short rods that formed into nails. The nail tip is usually cut by a blade, and the head was formed by reshaping the other end of the rod under high pressure. The first wire nail factories were established in the 1850s, but this nail type was not perfected or in wide use until the 1880s and 1890s. Even then, machine-cut nails remained the preferred type for most construction through the early twentieth century.
Given that the fire that destroyed Eutaw Manor occurred in 1865, no wire nails are present among the collection. However, the excavation of the site in 2015 alone produced over 800 nails of both hand-wrought and machine-cut types, and included numerous varieties. An analysis of this collection and those recovered in future excavations at Eutaw will help us reconstruct the sequence of construction of the house, its various additions, and general maintenance measures in the nearly 100 years it stood along the Herring Run.
For more information about historic nails and manufacturing technology check out this paper prepared by the National Park Service.