June 28, 2011
The Nail Market During the Colonial Period
This week’s blog entry by Master Blacksmith, Kenneth Schwarz, is a follow-up to his recent post describing process of making nails.
Understanding the process employed by blacksmiths for making nails provides little insight into commercial nail making during the eighteenth century. Colonial Williamsburg’s small-scale approach to making nails reinforces simplistic notions of colonial manufacture and the idea that colonial settlers sought a jack-of-all-trades, self-sufficient lifestyle. The realities of our colonial economy are much more complex. We can examine that complexity through the manufacture and distribution of nails in the period.
By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, nail-making had become a specialized industry in advanced economies. The benefits of specialization were evident, and could be quantified- as Adam Smith described in “The Wealth of Nations”:
“The division of labor, by reducing every man’s business to to some one simple operation, and by making this simple operation the sole employment of his life, necessarily increases very much the dexterity of the workman. A common smith, who, though accustomed to handle the hammer, has never been used to make nails, if upon some particular occasion he is obliged to attempt it, will scarce, I am assured, be able to make above two or three hundred nails in a day, and those, too very bad ones. A smith who has been accustomed to make nails, but whose sole or principal business has not been that of a nailer, can seldom with the utmost diligence make more than eight hundred or a thousand nails in a day. I have seen several boys under twenty years of age who had never exercised any other trade but that of making nails, and who, when they exerted themselves could make, each of them, upwards of two thousand three hundred nails in a day. The same person blows the bellows, stirs or mends the fire as there is occasion, heats the iron, and forges every part of the nail…”
Much of this kind of hardware manufacture was concentrated in the West Midlands of England- a region rich in iron, coal, laborers, and water for transportation and power. While the colonies were also rich in natural resources like iron and fuel, we lacked the large population centers where a robust labor market brought the cost of manufacture down. By some accounts, there were nearly 50,000 nailers in the West Midlands by the end of the eighteenth century. Assuming that each of these nailers was capable of making 2,000 nails a day, nail production in the Midlands could approach a potential 100,000,000 nails per day.
By contrast, colonial America’s largest city, Philadelphia, had a total population of about 30,000 individuals. Throughout the colonial period, reasonably priced English nails were readily available in coastal cities, limiting the need to develop a substantial nail-making industry in the colonies. That is not to say that nails were not made in the colonies, but rather that nails were readily available and reasonably priced as imports. In James Anderson’s accounts, nails are made in small quantities to fasten hardware that has been forged in the shop, but rarely does Anderson supply more than a few dozen nails to a customer until the wartime economy shifts demand to local producers. The commonwealth of Virginia was a large consumer of nails during the war, and after advertising for “nailers” to work in the shop, Anderson reported “I have eight lads that’s nailers…” and that they produced “…twenty five thousand nails a week…”
The pre-war importation of nails can be noted by looking at ads run by local merchants, or surviving business accounts from the day. John Greenhow, Williamsburg merchant frequently advertised in the Virginia Gazette that, among other merchandise, he carried “…nails of all sorts and sizes…”. William Allason, merchant of Falmouth, Virginia recorded in one inventory that he had about 750,000 nails on hand. These were the product of workers back in England.
Another element of the nail trade that many of our guests find surprising is the number of women involved in the trade. Because nail-making was a fairly quick and simple process, and because the capital costs of establishing a nail-making workshop were modest, women and young children sometimes became nailers to supplement a family income. William Hutton wrote in 1741:
The art of nail-making is one of the most ancient among us; we may safely charge its antiquity with four figures. The manufacturers are so scattered round the country, that we cannot travel far, in any direction, out of the sound of the nail-hammer. But Birmingham, like a powerful magnet, draws the produce of the anvil to herself. When I first approached her, from Walsall, in 1741, I was surprized at the prodigious number of blacksmiths shops upon the road; and could not conceive how a country, though populous, could support so many people of the same occupation. In some of these shops I observed one, or more females…. wielding the hammer with all the grace of their sex. The beauties of their face were rather eclipsed by the smut of the anvil; …. Struck with the novelty, I inquired, “Whether the ladies in this country shod horses?” but was answered, with a smile, “They are nailers.”
-Contributed by Kenneth Schwarz, Master Blacksmith