Update: My FIRST wrought nail! It was on the floor and I almost vacuumed it up when I was cleaning the basement but I noticed that it had a "rose head," and sure enough, it was a blacksmith made nail! Unfortunately, I don't know where it came out of since it was on the floor. 

Our house has machine made cut nails as opposed to hand-wrought nails. Nails are a great way to date a house, at least within a range. It's easier said than done, though, because there are several kinds of cut nails, and to the untrained eye it can be hard to discern which one you've got. Before nail making machines were invented all nails were hand forged by metal workers. They were beaten into shape by hammer blows. These were generally in use until "the late 1700's," which is not super-helpful if you're trying to narrow down a date. I found that I needed to figure out when cut nails became available specifically in Exeter.
The following excerpt from As Tough as Nails, by Stan Hutchinson, ToolTalk (2003) is helpful to understanding general nail making chronology. I hate to include such a big excerpt but I thought it was really interesting and needed to be included in full.  
About 1775 a Cumberland, Rhode Island inventor named Jeremiah Wilkinson developed a nail cutting process utilizing a flat sheet of cold iron.* In 1786, Ezekiel Reed invented and patented a little- known device which was, supposedly, the forerunner of modem nail-making machines.* Invention was followed by one refinement after another until the cut nail process was perfected. A new, truly mass produced nail form emerged, cut from iron rather than wrought. By 1800-1810, the use of cut nails was widespread in the U.S. of that era.

During the period 1790-1820, rolled iron plates of varying width and thickness were fed into early clipping machines and diagonally cut across their breadth by a guillotine-like shear set at a fixed angle. In these early, treadle operated machines, the nail plate itself was turned over after each chop of the overhead shear producing wedge-shaped blanks (see illustration below). Heads were still hammered by hand until heading machines were developed. Since the sheared cuts for each nail blank were made from opposite sides of the nail plate, the resulting two burrs are on diagonally opposite comers of the nail blank (see illustration a. below). Nails thus made until about 1830 are known as "Type A" cut nails. During the 1820s, machinery was perfected to speed up nail production and deliver a more consistent product, cutting and heading the nail in a single operation.* The iron nail plates were fed into the clipper as of yore, and the overhead cutter or shear was set diagonally at an angle of 4 to 6 degrees but, with each stroke of the shear, the nail plate was alternately angled from side to side producing the desired tapered blank; or, the plate passed under an indexing cutter head which produced the same result. Nails produced in this manner, generally from 1830 through the rest of the century, are known as "Type B" cut nails and have both shear burrs on the same side, that is, the back of the nail which began as the backside of the nail plate. (b. above). The large end of the tapered blank was simultaneously upset in a heading machine pro- viding the desired configuration. Burrs are difficult to detect on rusty or pitted nails but are quite obvious on unused examples and older ones which have been protected by surrounding wood. from

While the information on nail making in the late 18th and early 19th century stands, Maureen Phillips wrote an important paper called "Mechanic Geniuses and. Duckies," A Revision of. New. England's Cut. Nail. Chronology before 1820, that revised the previously accepted nail dating. Nail samples from houses in several sites in Massachusetts and New Hampshire with known dates were studied and found to bump nail technology back several years earlier.

Once I understood the general nail-making process using machines I looked for information on nail-making in Exeter. What I found was that by 1785 there was a slitting mill in operation.
The slitting mill consisted of two pairs of rolls turned by water wheels. Mill bars were flat bars of iron about three inches wide and half an inch thick. A piece was cut off the end of the bar with shears powered by one of the water wheels and heated in a furnace. This was then passed between flat rolls which made it into a thick plate. it was then passed through the second rolls (known as cutters), which slit it into rods. The cutters had intersecting grooves, which sheared the iron lengthways.
It's impossible to say whether wrought nails were still widely in use after this point in Exeter. My guess is that machine made nails would have been cheaper to purchase and would have pretty quickly superseded the use of wrought nails, but that's just my guess. The following quote is from Charles Henry Bell's History of the town of Exeter, New Hampshire:

A slitting mill from 1813
Simeon Folsom was another nail-maker that was in business prior to 1800. Here are a couple more tidbits about nail-making specifically in Exeter: 
During his visit in 1789, President Washington noted that a snuff mill was in operation here. An iron-slitting mill mentioned by Washington had been replaced by Simeon Folsom’s factory for producing the newly introduced machine-cut nail. - Foreword by James L. Garvin, Architectural Historian, State of New Hampshire, Walking Tour of Exeter, New Hampshire, 1994

Record of the Rust family, embracing the descendants of Henry Rust, who came from England and settled in Hingham, Mass., 1634-1635

1802 Map, S. Folsom's nail factory.
On the chart below, I know our house falls into 1790-1825. Given this information I needed to determine if our nails are Type A (burs on opposite sides) or Type B (burs on the same side) cut nails.

I don't know the exact dates when type A and B nails were being produced specifically in Exeter but at least it gives me the earlier vs. later information about our nails.

Here is a group of our nails.
Below is a type A cut nail circa 1790-1810 from our house.

I think I would need to find a lot more of these in situ in some part of the house to be sure that they aren't just a fluke. I am on the hunt....

Written by Kerry Baldridge

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