By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, nail-making had become a specialized industry in advanced economies...*my favorite podcasts - highly recommended for TYWKIWDBI-type content.
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... 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...
I often hear the statement that “Nails were so expensive that when moving, people would burn their houses down to save the nails.” This is partially based in fact. In the 1640’s, here in Virginia, the legislature passed an act that “…forbade the burning of buildings for the nails…”. Some historians jumped to the conclusion that buildings were burned to save nails, because nails were horribly expensive. This seems like a logical explanation for such a drastic act, until you consider the circumstances in which an entire building would be worth less than the nails used to build it...
The act went on to specify that if you had a building that you intended to burn for the nails, you could have two honest men estimate the number of nails in the structure, and petition the legislature. The legislature would give you the estimated number of nails in exchange for NOT burning the building. I suspect that this law may have been aimed at controlling wildfires more than at the cost of nails.
17 June 2015
Did colonial Americans burn down old buildings to retrieve the nails?
On a recent podcast of No Such Thing As A Fish*, one of the elves asserted that nails were so valuable in colonial America that when a house was abandoned or otherwise unusable, it was burned down so that the nails used to build it could be harvested. I found some details about this practice at Colonial Williamsburg, offered by the master blacksmith there: