Archive for July, 2012

In the Matter of the Penny (d)

Did you ever wonder how the ancients managed to build wooden structures without using nails? Well, I have and they didn’t. And while I don’t lie about the live long day wondering how the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were cobbled together exactly, I will admit to similar questions crossing my mind every time I pick up a nail. When were nails invented and by whom, and given that steam powered machines didn’t make an appearance until the late 18th century, how does one go about making a nail by hand? And given that early nails were all handmade they must’ve been pricey. Is that why ‘penny’ came to be the unit of measurement for nails?

Starting in 15th century England, nails were sold not by the pound but by the count. That is, they were priced at a certain cost per hundred. And of course, the larger the nail, the higher the cost per hundred. For example, a hundred ten penny nails cost 10¢ or more accurately, 10d, where d was the symbol for cents. d is the abbreviation for denarius, the Roman penny. Clearly that d was the symbol for penny back then is a manifestation of Britain’s roman roots. So, to sum up, a ten penny nail cost 10d per hundred and in time 10d became the designation of its size.

Jesus was likely crucified with hand wrought, 70d spikes driven into the fleshy part of the palm at the base of the thumb at an angle inclined towards the wrist so as to pass thru the carpal tunnel, one per hand, and his feet were likely nailed, this time with hand wrought, 60d spikes, to the sides of the cross, legs astraddle, one through and perpendicular to each heel. Back then, crucifixion was a common enough sentence for every kind of criminal, anarchist, and revolutionary, and sometimes adulterous women, homosexuals, schizophrenics and/or manic depressives, yet archeologists have never recovered any of these nails owing to the fact that, because hand made nails were so expensive, they were removed from the rotting corpses for later reuse building a stable or shed of some kind, say. Or maybe there were knackers of sorts, under contract with the city to remove the crucified dead from their crosses, and part of their compensation consisted of them getting to keep the four nails. Sometimes there was a fifth nail, a gruesome, inch thick 70d spike, but I digress.

10d for a 100 10d nails sounds pretty cheap to my ear, but don’t forget, back then you could buy a 2 pound loaf of higher quality white bread for about 1d. Translating that to the present time, since you’d expect to pay $5 for a loaf of high quality bread nowadays, were nails still selling at the same price they were in the 15th century, you’d expect to pay $50 for a hundred 10d nails now. So, yes, nails were pricey back in the good old days when they were still handmade.

So, from around 500BC up until 1900AD or so, nails were made by hand, by a Nailer and how long would it take an experienced Nailer to knock out 100 10d nails? And what did he use for nail stock and where did he get it from and at what cost? Well, at the outset, craftsmen called Slitters would cut up iron bars to a suitable size for a Nailer to work on, so some fraction of the $50 would be paid to the Slitter for 100 slits. Later, with the invention of steam-powered machines, sheets of steel of various widths and thicknesses could be cut into slits. Although such slits had to be turned into nails by hand also, their size more closely matched the size of the finished product, so the hand forging was simpler. These were known as cut nails, and they were considerably cheaper than the traditional handmade nail.

Starting around 1900, steel was produced as rolls of wire of various thicknesses in addition to sheets, and the process of cutting and fashioning wire into nails was completely automated. Cut nails are superior to wire nails in every regard but one—cost. The cost plummeted and overnight the wire nail drove the cut nail business into extinction.

In colonial America, nails were in such scarce supply that just about every able-bodied person knew how to make nails by hand. Every home had a nail making setup located next to the fireplace, and entire families would while away a foul winter’s night making them, and what nails they didn’t keep for their personal inventories were later sold or used as barter, acting as a kind of currency. Thomas Jefferson is on record for having bragged about his collection of nails, nails he had made with his own hands.

Now as a youth, I was pretty normal, i.e., I didn’t have any real interest in nails per se. That is, until I was 13 or so, at which time the whole family moved North out of LA and settled in a poverty pocket just 6 miles South of Eureka along 101. The town was blessed with three saw mills kept well supplied with redwood and Douglas fir logs by a steady summer long procession of behemoth 18 wheel logging trucks. One of the three, the smallest one, specialized in redwood shingles and shakes. Another one, lathe and 1”x2”’s and 1”x1”’s. The third mill, the largest operation by far, turned out construction lumber, i.e., studs, planks, beams and 1 by sheathing. The town was awash in lumber of one sort or another, and each mill sported a scrap heap, comprised not only of sawdust and scraps but a treasure trove of reject lumber also. The citizens of Fields Landing were given free access to these scrap heaps that continuously fed the burners located right next to them. These burners were made of sheet metal and conical in shape, about 30 feet tall, and a conveyor belt would transport scrap up to the top of the burner and dump it letting it plummet down onto the conflagration inside. With three gigantic burners going 24/7, the air quality of the place was found wanting, with the town perpetually bathed in a blue haze of wood smoke and a light mist of charred and partially burned sawdust, that would go on to choke and clog the rain gutters of the houses downwind from these burners.

The point of all of this is that Ronnie and I never wanted for lumber of one sort or another for carpentry projects of one sort or another: the bigger pieces were turned into carts (provided we could find wheels), or forts (both elevated and below ground), or rafts (some even big enough to keep both of us afloat at the same time), or foot bridges across sloughs, or sheathing for duck blinds, and these all required considerable assembly. Smaller pieces were turned into javelins, broad axes, small swords, medieval Halberds, catapults and these required next to no assembly. By some assembly required I mean, of course, that one must use nails to attach one piece to the next. Ah, yes, nails—now we’ve come to the crux of the matter.

We were poor, and nails, while they didn’t cost any where near $50 per hundred, were nonetheless an expense greater than what the normal, blue collar household would budget for, i.e., they were still expensive. They were never wasted: if in the process of driving in a nail you bent it, you didn’t tear it out and toss it aside and start anew with a fresh one. No, you carefully removed it taking care so as to not bend it even further, or, worst of all, turning a simple bend into a compound one. Once removed, laying it flat on a flat surface (usually the street) and with a hammer, you carefully straightened it out, making sure you kept the head of the nail perpendicular to the shank, because if you didn’t, the chances were very good that the rescued nail, since it had been bent one or more times already and therefore prone to bend again in the same place, would bend again. The more the more. Sometimes if the bend wasn’t too severe and the nail had been sunk a good ways into the wood, you could straighten it in situ using the hammer’s claw and a twisting motion.

This is not to imply that my stepfather Clyde didn’t have a nice inventory of various size wire nails, for he did. But it was off limits to Ronnie and me, and we knew it, and more importantly, he knew it too and knew that I knew it. And convinced that he knew exactly how many nails he had, down to the smallest d, I never once pilfered so much as single 6d finish nail. Were I to dip into his stash of 70d spikes to build a raft, say, a beating most certainly lay in the offing when their theft eventually came to light, like when he needed a 70d spike for one of his projects.

By and large, Clyde’s inventory consisted of wire nails, but nestled among them as sort of a sub inventory could be found an extensive collection of cut nails. That is, over the years that we lived there, Clyde would undertake one construction project after another with the very first one of these being a bath house, laundry room and restroom for the tenants who parked their trailers in our trailer court. And one summer he even built a huge smoke house, right next to the bath house, one in which to smoke the many salmon he and my mother caught on weekends during Salmon season. He needed a steady supply of lumber for these projects and this he attained through various demolition projects he undertook in Eureka, as stately, old Victorians were regularly torn down in the name of progress. Building contractors would hire him, dirt cheap, to tear these old houses down, and this he would do, painstakingly, board by board, nail by nail, brick by brick.

During the summers, when not working, he’d haul home truckload after truckload of ancient redwood lumber, sheathing and studs mostly, still full of nails, cut nails. I would spend the better part of many summer days pulling these brittle, wrought iron, blue beauties from lumber that hadn’t seen the light of day in over a century, taking care not to bend them further, or, God forbid, break them. I straightened them, if I could, as I went along and thus some were salvaged and placed into Clyde’s inventory.

So, you see, the lumber wasn’t the problem. It cost next to nothing, and I had free access to the various stacks of it in our backyard. The nails, however, were another matter entirely, and had to be bought with cold hard cash. They were valuable and highly prized. In Clyde’s ethos, a man without nails was scarcely a man at all. His trove sported shelf upon shelf stocked with cans and jars of all sizes, and crumpled brown paper sacks, interspersed with myriad smallish boxes, the kind that wire nails come in when bought at a local hardware store, a hundred or so at a time. Some of the containers held nails awaiting straightening, and some of these were so grotesquely misshapen that they hardly seemed worth saving, but Clyde, true to his penny pinching ways, saved them anyway.

Given what a nail-miser my stepfather was, how did Ronnie and I come into nails when the time came to build something? Well, there was in town, down on the waterfront, the ruins of a burnt out Salmon cannery. It had probably caught fire and burned down 50 years earlier back when the whole town burned down following the explosion of a vat of whale oil at the whaling station located at the end of our street. The explosion splattered virtually every structure within a radius of a 100 yards of the vat with burning whale oil. The ensuing firestorm reduced the thriving town to a burned out hulk, and the people, rather than rebuild, moved north and built homes and businesses in Eureka where there was no whaling station. Our house was the only structure in town that didn’t burn to the ground. The whaling station, fully insured of course, rebuilt itself almost immediately, and for a long time, Fields Landing consisted solely of our house and the whaling station each located at their respective ends of the single street that connected them. Ronnie and I would salvage nails from the cannery ruins as we needed them. The supply seemed limitless. And so did the days of my youth.

1 Comment