Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Nov. 4, 2011

A penny's worth of history

Since both husband Art and I are more interested in the past than many others are, we frequently see history in items that others might consider trash. This happened last August when youngest daughter Katie was moving into the apartment over Art's work.

Seven years earlier, older daughter Mariya was preparing to begin her college career at K-State. She decided the apartment would be, in her own words, an appropriate "first baby step away from home." She and Art spent nearly two months remodeling the four rooms to make the space ready for her to move in.

But many things were left undone. Some were completed later, but others weren't. Mariya didn't complain and it was a case of "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" with Art.

But in August when he was helping Katie move in, those unaddressed problems again came to Art's attention.

One of those was the door at the top of the steps. It rubbed against the jam. A few minutes with a plane seven years ago would have solved the problem, but Art just didn't get to it. But when he looked at it this fall, he noticed the frame wasn't square. Since the door fit well enough on the top and the side it was hung from, he decided to rework the latch side. The problem was the board the latch plate was fastened to disappeared into the ceiling on top and the flooring on the bottom. Regardless, he decided he was going to pull it out.

It all went much better than he thought it would. Two hours later, the door hung perfectly.

And he even had a bonus! As he pulled the wood free, he discovered that in addition to countless coats of paint, it had been held in place with an assortment of square nails, which he set aside for me to see.

But I think he saved them for an additional reason. I had already seen bunches of them during previous remodeling jobs on the old building. I think that he, like I, just couldn't quite bring himself to throw these relics away. Still, I thought it would be interesting to see what I could learn about them. So I gathered them together and brought them home with me.

Information gleaned from various nail manufacturers' websites led me to conclude those nails were probably more than 80 years old. Wire nails were introduced about 1910 and had pretty well displaced square nails by 1930, although they can still be purchased today to give an authentic appearance when doing restoration work.

The common wire nail is made by taking a piece of wire, cutting it to the desired length, forming a point on one end and flattening the other end to make a head.

But the square nail was manufactured by quite a different process and it isn't really square. It was made from a sheet of metal as thick as the final nail and a bit taller than its intended length. The sheet was sheared at a slight angle and then flipped over and sheared again at the same angle. The result was a thin piece of metal with two sides that were parallel and two sides that tapered toward each other. The wide end was then flattened to form the head.

The sharp point of a modern nail allows it to penetrate wood more easily than the flat end of its square predecessor. Its smooth shank permits it to be driven in with less force, but it also comes out more readily than its older cousin. One of those old-fashioned square nails can hold up to four times the load of a modern nail, but is far more expensive to make.

In about 1820, the square nail was the new kid on the block. Before then, each nail was made by hand by a blacksmith, a process that dates back to Roman times.

Art and I were curious why nails were often measured in pennies. A bit more searching revealed the reason dated back four centuries to England. Nails were sized by the cost of a hundred and the price was in Pence - or pennies. This didn't precisely determine the size of the nail, but bigger nails contained more iron and so were more expensive.

While most of the world and much of the United States now designates nail sizes by the diameter of the wire and the length, the penny continues to be used and in a way that connects the present with the distant past. Penny size is indicated by the letter "D" rather than "P" next to the number. Its origin is the Roman (Latin) word denarius, which meant penny.

But while all these pieces of the past were fascinating to us, I'm pretty certain Katie cared little about all the history hidden in her door jam. Art said she looked dutifully at the square nails he held out for her to inspect, but seemed much more interested in his instructions to get some white paint and a small brush the next time she was at a store.

A few days later, a fresh coat of paint covered the repaired jam and both the work of this past August and that of some unknown carpenter from long ago slipped quietly from view.

The six nails on the left are so-called square nails, while the two on the right are modern wire nails.
The 2nd and 3rd from the left are from the door jam and are of the same size. The 2nd is turned so
the front and back can be seen to be parallel while the 3rd nails displays the taper-cut sides.

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