The photographs above show some old square nails that were recovered from a horizontal member of the east end of the old house on the Michael Korns, Sr. farm, Southampton Township, Somerset County, PA during the 1990's by a descendant. Click here for a few more pictures from different angles: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. The existence of these nails came up during a recent conversation on the subject of dating the house, and the owner of the nails was kind enough to photograph them for Korns.org. These nails appear similar to the nails that can be seen in a 1999 photograph of a log beam supporting the first story floor of the house. (The nails in the beam appear to be in better condition than these due to having been protected better from the weather.)
My preliminary reading on the subject suggests that nails like this made their appearance circa 1790-1796 (see below). I was initially surprised that the nails appear to be headless. In general appearance, at least two of them seem in the photograph to be tapered on two opposing sides, and generally parallel on the remaining two sides. At least one of them has a longitudinal recess that gives the general impression (from the photograph) of being the result of a shearing operation. The chief advantage of this type of headless cut nail over hand-wrought headed square nails was simply a dramatically cheaper price.
A third party website states that the first machine-cut nails were headless, and were flat from being cut from sheet metal, and headless and tapered to a point on the other two opposing sides from the simple shearing operation that was used to form them. This description seems to describe at least two of these nails. The website mentions an 1811 date, but the date seems to apply to a particular method of preparing the sheet metal, rather than the introduction of the headless style of nail.
Click Here to see Figure 5 from a 1923 article on dating houses, which shows dated samples of early cut nails. Specimen A in the figure is a nail like those found in the house on the Michael Korn, Sr. farm, and is from a house dated 1798. The figure title says "Cut-Nails, L Headed and Headless. Made at a single cut from the nail plate. They appear in Pennsylvania immediately after 1796, and continue in use along with the more common early Hammer-Headed and later Stamp-Headed Cut-Nails. Sometimes found in floors, clapboards, etc." For a complete copy of the article, click here, but be forewarned that it is a 4680KB PDF file and will take awhile to download. This article indicates that this style of nail isn't really helpful from a dating standpoint, because they were in use for such a long time after they were initially introduced. It almost sounds like they became the equivalant of today's finishing nail. Unless we can determine (from actual examination of the nails) that they were made with a particular machine cut (one cut from each side) that was used circa pre-1810 in the United States, they don't tell us much date-wise. Considering the heavy corrosion, that may not be possible.
Click Here for a description and sketch of how headless machine-cut nails were made, from an 1849 British book. This shows the circa-pre-1810 style of cut that was used in the United States.
The Mount Vernon Estate website states that cut nails replaced hand wrought nails circa 1790. One thing is clear from my reading; machine manufacture of nails was a technological revolution that resulted in large scale mass production at surprisingly early date, and machine-headed cut nails became available very early as well.
The head portion of at least two of these nails appears unusually thin; I believe that this thinning is due to corrosion from being on the exposed exterior of the house for nearly two centuries. Click here for an enlarged photograph of square nail holes in a window frame on the east end of the house (you will have to click your "expand" button to view at full resolution).
Click here for higher resolution photos of the cut nails from the east end of the house.
Not all of the nails on the east end of the house were headless machine-cut nails. Click here for a photo of a round-headed wire nail from the window sill of the left hand window on the east end of the house. This type of nail wasn't generally available in the United States until circa 1883.
August 25, 2007
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