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My Old House: How Nails Can Tell You the Age Your House

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Different types of nails are often used to determine the age of a house or other structures. Before 1790 all nails were hand forged from wrought iron, after that builders used cut nails until 1890 when modern wire nails were introduced that remain in use

Nails are important, so important that in the British Army the Royal Engineers the unofficial slogan is, “When all else fails use bloody great nails.” You can also use the type of nails to tell how old a house is. Before 1790 all the nails used were hand wrought from wrought iron. This was generally a two-man operation where one blacksmith made the nail’s shank then he passed it on to another specialist who formed the head in a special die. The head on these hand wrought nails usually displays for places where it was struck by a hammer forming the head.

They were called “rose head” nails that are still manufactured by the Tremont Nail Company of Tremont Massachusetts for use in restoration and for other special projects. Tremont is the oldest manufacturing company in the United States.

After the Revolutionary War Squire Forbes an ironmaster living in East Canaan Connecticut started experimenting with a rolling mill for making sheets of wrought iron that were to be used for making cut nails. By 1790 cut nails of different sizes virtually replaced rose head nails.

The sudden appearance of cut nails in my old house indicated that the house was built in several stages it wasn’t until the invention of cut nails that the interior of the house was plastered as evidenced by the use of small cut nails to anchor the firring strips that anchored the plaster. The plaster itself was filled with hog bristles and horse hair as a reinforcement making it extremely hard to remove. I had to replace some of it when I owned the house because of water damage.

In Connecticut there was a hell-hole called Newgate Prison where among other things the inmates were forced to make cut nails, these nails were distinguished by having an “L” shaped head. This unique head was originally used to identify prison made nails until this shape was discovered to have some unique properties in the building trades.

Another clue to the age of a house is the way the roof is built. In houses built before 1800 there was no ridgepole at the peak of the roof; the rafters were butted together directly. Ridgepoles didn’t make an appearance until after 1800. The type of chimney is another clue because in really old houses there was a massive chimney that was in the center of the house. The chimney usually held several flues connected to fireplaces and a dome topped oven.

The final improvement in nails happened in the 1890s when wire nails with a round shank replaced cut nails for most purposes. Nails like this are still in use. The nails a house was built with were often the most valuable part of a house, so when the occupants were leaving they often burnt the house down to save the nails for use in their new house.


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