The making of nails by hand was a very old craft. References to nails made in Staffordshire, which eventually became the great centre of the trade, were made as early as the reign of King John, from 1199 to 1216. The trade was always domestic in character, the work being carried on in little workshops attached to the nailers’ dwelling houses.
Over a long period nailing expanded, and from about 1750 onwards, when improved iron-making techniques made available increased quantities of iron rods suitable for nail making, the expansion was considerable. By about 1830, no less than 50,000 workers were engaged in nailing in south Staffordshire and north Worcestershire. The trade had then reached its peak.
Machine-made nails had been introduced some years earlier, and the machine competed with the hand worker with increasing success from that time onward. The result was a steady decline in the number of nailers at work. By 1900 only about 4,300 nailers remained, and in the following 50 years the trade became virtually extinct. A few nailers were still to be found in Worcestershire in 1951
Like many other old trades, nail making had its own customs, some of them unique. Nailing was essentially a family enterprise, even the children being put to work as soon as they were big enough to be of use. Starting at a very early age, the nailer soon developed a high degree of skill, and it is of interest to note that a careful study of a nailer at work in 1951 showed that there was no possible means of improving his technique. By long practice he had become so fast and skilful at his work that only the machine could beat him.
The nailer’s equipment was simple. He had a hand hammer, a small anvil, a “bore” or hollow tool in which the partly-finished nail was placed to have its head formed, and a treadle-hammer for heading. The iron rods were heated in a small hearth similar to that used by a black-smith, but much smaller. Some idea of the skill developed by long practice can be gained from the fact that the a nailer could make two brush nails, which are like large tacks, every six seconds. They were surprisingly uniform in size and shape, the more so as the nailer had no means of measuring, and judged the amount of iron on which he worked solely by eye.