Fort Vancouver National Historic Site


Do You Do Nails? by Tom Holloway


A common question visitors ask in the reconstructed carpenter shop at Fort Vancouver NHS is whether Hudson's Bay Company carpenters used nails in construction and other purposes, and if so where did they come from.

Carpenter shop volunteers, in turn, commonly describe the post-on-sill construction of Fort Vancouver buildings as requiring no nails or other metal fasteners, except for those in the floorboards and to attach roofing material.  So were nails used?

Archaeological evidence says yes, as 15,227 nails of various sizes and configurations (as well as header tools used by blacksmiths in making nails) had turned up in excavations conducted on the site from the late 1940s up through the mid-1970s.  As to where they came from, the two logical sources would seem to be hammered out in the post blacksmith shop, or made in Europe and brought on the annual supply ship.(1)

To approach these questions some context beyond the Pacific Northwest frontier is useful.  By the 1830s what has been called the First Industrial Revolution  was well underway in Europe. Following the adaptation of the steam engine for industrial use in the late 1700s Britain took the lead in applying steam power to mechanized production in factories that produced many basic and standardized items much more abundantly and cheaply than was previously possible.  With the invention of nail making machines in the late 1700s, nails joined textiles among the many items that began to be mass produced.(2)

These developments meant that many things that previously had been made in small quantities by labor-intensive manual methods could be purchased in bulk from manufacturers at lower cost.  Fort Vancouver Hudson’s Bay Company era was on an isolated frontier, the far edge of the Europe-centered commercial networks.  But the Company's business was commerce, and as long as the maritime connection was maintained it could acquire just about whatever Europe could provide.

The detailed invoice for European products that arrived at Fort Vancouver on the barque 'Brothers' in 1844 for Outfit 1845 (which I have used previously in discussing blankets and capots and beaver traps) lists no fewer than 430 thousand nails of various types and sizes coming from London in a single shipment.  Two hundred thousand were for attaching roof shingles, leaving nearly a quarter of a million nails in sizes from one inch to seven inches.  See the full list below.

Fort Vancouver blacksmiths might have needed to make nails and spikes on occasion or for special purposes, and more nails may have been made on site in the early years at the Vancouver location.  But in view of the supplies coming in from English factories by the mid-1840s it would have been wasteful of the time and talents of skilled smiths to put them to work hammering out small nails in large quantities.

This is the full list of nails delivered to Fort Vancouver in the barque 'Brothers' in 1844.  I retain the Roman numeral "M" as it appears in HBC shipping lists and inventories, to indicate one thousand.  The "d" indicates the "penny" size of the nails following English nail size conventions still in use in the USA:

  • 1 M  round boat nails 2 3/4 inch

  • 2 M  2d brad nails

  • 5 M  3d brad nails

  • 6 M  4d brad nails

  • 6 M  6d brad nails

  • 20 M  brass chair nails

  • 8 M  10d clasp nails

  • 10 M  24d clinch nails

  • 10 M  36d clinch nails

  • 7 M  die head deck nails 5 inches

  • 5 M  die head deck nails 6 inches

  • 3 M  die head deck nails 7 inches

  • 7 M  die head deck nails 7 13/20 inches fine draw

  • 1 M  counter plough nails 2 3/4 inches

  • 1 M  counter plough nails 2 inches

  • 8 M  cooper's 3d rose nails

  • 50 M 14d fine drawn rose nails

  • 50 M 20d find drawn rose nails

  • 10 M 24d fine drawn rose nails

  • 10 M 30d fine drawn rose nails

  • 200 M  4d fine drawn shingling nails

  • 5 M  2d clout head tack nails

  • 5 M  4 ounce machine tack nails

The cost of these nails to the Company was £115.1s.1d, or just over 115 pounds sterling.  The Measuring Worth online calculator suggests that would amount to about $13,000 in today's dollars. (3)


(1) Another possible source of nails recovered archaeologically was USA manufacture, resulting from US Army occupation of the original HBC fort after HBC left the site. The nails recovered included 7,794 of wrought rod (51%), but the method and location of manufacture, whether manual or industrial, or in Europe or at Fort Vancouver, are undetermined. There were also 7,493 cut nails (49%), which could not have been made at Fort Vancouver. These findings are discussed in detail in Lester A. Ross, “Fort Vancouver, 1829-1860: A Historical Archaeological Investigation of the Goods Imported and Manufactured by the Hudson’s Bay Company,” (Typescript, Fort Vancouver NHS, 1976), pp. 902-922.

I thank Heidi Pierson, Museum Specialist on the staff of Fort Vancouver NHS, for pointing out that archaeological evidence suggests more hand-wrought nails were used in the HBC era than might be suggested by looking at one shipment arriving from England in 1844.

In the course of working up this posting I came across an extensive bibliography of literature on the history of nails and their interpretation in archaeology and historical restoration, available HERE.

(2) While child labor was common in the 19th century, the advent of nail-making machinery should get us past the image of workshops full of 10 year-old boys manually pounding out nails with hammer and anvil, from heated iron rod stock.  It is well known that Thomas Jefferson, who as US President purchased Louisiana Territory in 1803 and famously sent Lewis & Clark to explore it, also had a nail making operation at his Monticello plantation, which employed slaves to make nails by hand from nail rod.  In 1796 Jefferson acquired a nail making machine that used hoop iron to make 4d brads.  The 1844 shipment discussed here included many sizes and shapes of iron and steel bar and rod stock, but nothing called "nail rod." The smallest is “bolt rod” of 1/4” diameter.

(3) The full listing of the 1844 shipment is in Lester A. Ross, “Fort Vancouver, 1829-1860: A Historical Archaeological Investigation of the Goods Imported and manufactured by the Hudson’s Bay Company,” (Typescript, Fort Vancouver NHS,1976), Appendix II, pp. 1,384-1,410. Nails are listed on pp. 1,400-1.

Tom Holloway
Fort Vancouver NHS
Fur Fort Fun Facts blog
September, 2012

Tom Holloway is a historian who got interested in the history of everyday tools and technology about 20 years ago.  About the same time he began working to acquire a modicum of skill in woodworking and blacksmithing using traditional methods and manual techniques, on a hobby basis. 

After retiring in 2009 and moving to Portland, Oregon, he began to volunteer in the reenactment craft shops at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Vancouver, Washington.  He is now the Lead Volunteer in the carpenter shop, where the work focuses on smaller woodworking projects, since building construction is not currently going on there.

Fort Vancouver was the regional headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company activities west of the Rocky Mountains from 1824 to 1846.  Volunteer blacksmiths and carpenters work in the two shops to demonstrate those crafts as they might have been practiced in the early 1840s, and provide historical interpretation to people visiting the site.  To improve the quantity and quality of information for shop operation and interpretation, Tom began to dig into sources on the history of Hudson's Bay Company, Fort Vancouver specifically, and the fur trade era more generally.  In June 2012 he began to share some of the results of that research on his blog, "Fur Fort Fun Facts."

Tom is not a stranger on this website.  He translates articles we receive from Spanish and Portuguese into English, including translating several of the articles by Diego de Assis posted on this site.


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