Issue 15 T.O.C. – Kenneth Schwarz – “Accustomed to Handle the Hammer: The Nail Making Specialty in Pre-industrial Manufacture”

This post is part of a blog series revealing the table of contents of upcoming Issue Fifteen. As is our custom, we’ll be discussing one article per weekday in order to give you a taste of what is to come. 

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Kenneth Schwarz – “Accustomed to Handle the Hammer: The Nail Making Specialty in Pre-industrial Manufacture”

Nails have been a vital part of building structures and furniture for many centuries – that little shaft of iron driven through wood fibers has immense and long-lasting holding power. And nails have been traded and sold extensively around the world, promoting rapid growth as well as, at times, inspiring revolution. 

Author and Colonial Williamsburg Master Blacksmith Kenneth Schwarz brings us on a fascinating exploration of the nail-making trade in early America, as well as the competing manufacturing efforts across the pond. The West Midlands of England were a hub of nail production, with some accounts estimating some 50,000 nail makers laboring there at the end of the 18th century. This vast labor force might have produced as many as 100 million nails per day, an almost inconceivable number. But dedicated nailers could average around 200 nails per hour working at the forge and anvil, and those numbers add up quickly. Early America imported most of the nails used in early construction, but this practice came to an end at the time of the Revolution – the Virginia Legislature in 1775 resolved unanimously that the domestic manufacture of nails had to become a top priority.

After poring over the historical record, Schwarz brings us to the forge to show how nails are made. He details the tools and techniques, dispels myths, and shows how an early American blacksmith would have thought through the process of shaping iron – a vital trade for the building of a nation.

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