Nail-making at Monticello is well documented but the nail-cutting machine Jefferson acquired to increase production has not been precisely identified. Enslaved laborers, primarily children, made nails by hand (from six-penny to twenty-penny in size) in Monticello's nailery beginning in the spring of 1794.[1] A year later, Jefferson asked Henry Remsen, his former clerk in the State Department, to help him acquire the implements necessary for cutting four-penny nails. He hoped to purchase the rather simple tools (shears, bit, and heading vice) he saw in operation in New York state in 1791.[2]

Instead, through Remsen's agency, Jefferson eventually purchased a nail-cutting machine costing $40 from a "Mr. Burral" in New York.[3] This machine arrived in February 1796, and was first used to cut four-penny nails from hoop iron, the thin iron used for barrel hoops (all the rest of the nails were hand wrought from nailrod).[4] In his unpublished thesis, "The Nailery of Thomas Jefferson: Ironworking in Arcadia," David H. Shayt offers this account of the way Jefferson's machine probably worked:

Judging from patent specifications of other nail-cutting machines, Jefferson's would have consisted of a pair of vertical shears powered by the action of a shaft turned by hand. It was probably a bench-top machine, home-crafted, and unpatented, for the name "Burral" does not appear in what remains of late eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century patent records. A strip of heated iron would have been fed into the shear at an angle, with the upper blade slicing off a triangular piece of iron, which would fall into a hopper beneath the machine. The cut nails recovered in archaeological excavations at the nailery show no evidence of heads. Nail-cutting machines in the late 1790s were introducing heading assemblies as a part of their capabilities, but it appears that Jefferson's machine was not among these.[5]

In Jefferson's surviving papers, there is a drawing of a nail-cutting machine patented by Jacob Perkins, and about 1802 Jefferson consulted Perkins about the possibilities of automatic feeding.[6] However, no record exists to indicate that he modified his own machine or purchased another. Archaeological excavations of the nailery have unearthed scraps of hoop iron and machine-cut four-penny nails. Some are on display at Monticello's David M. Rubenstein Visitor Center.

- Russell Martin and Lucia Stanton, 10/88

Further Sources


  1. ^ See MB, 2:915, for the delivery of Monticello-made nails in May 1794. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  2. ^ Jefferson to Remsen, April 2, 1795, in PTJ, 28:323. Transcription available at Founders Online. See also Journal of the Tour, May 21-June 10, 1791, in PTJ, 20:453-56. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  3. ^ Jefferson to Remsen, June 18, 1795, in PTJ, 28:388-89. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  4. ^ See Jefferson to Archibald Stuart, February 22, 1796, in PTJ, 28:617-18. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  5. ^ David Howard Shayt, "The Nailery of Thomas Jefferson: Ironworking in Arcadia" (MA thesis, George Washington University, 1983).
  6. ^ Objects: nail cutting machine, 1801, by Benjamin Perkins, M29 [electronic edition], Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2003).