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:
By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, nail-making had become a specialized industry in advanced economies...

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.
*my favorite podcasts - highly recommended for TYWKIWDBI-type content.


  1. Burning wouldn't powderize the timbers, would it? And with everything black, you'd have a hard time finding the nails, wouldn't you? And wouldn't the process of burning the house increase oxidation on the nails, and thus make them less reliable?

    Too many questions.


  2. Three months ago I dismantled the inside of a barn and made a big fire in my yard with pieces of carpentry. The result was a bit of ashes and dozens of nails so i'd say it's a pretty efficient way to recover them. (and next time I'll remember not do it where I sometimes park my car...)

    And if i remember correctly, in "Walden", David Thoreau uses nails recovered from a burnt shed to build his cabin next to the pond.

  3. Correction: It wasn't a burnt shed but a failry sound shanty :
    "I had already bought the shanty of James Collins, an Irishman who worked on the Fitchburg Railroad, for boards. James Collins' shanty was considered an uncommonly fine one. "..."I took down this dwelling the same morning, drawing the nails, and removed it to the pond-side by small cartloads, spreading the boards on the grass there to bleach and warp back again in the sun. "

    My mistake.

  4. I've had bonfires in my backyard pit that burned hot enough to melt the cheap palette nails used these days but good old iron nails are easy as heck to sift out of the ashes.

  5. I would imagine they would use a magnet to get the iron nails. My grandfather used to go over fires with a large magnet to save the nails. He was a carpenter and grew up during the depression. He was the kind of guy who "saved string".

  6. i seem to recall reading about that (house burning for the nails) in one of the books by eric sloane?



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