You are here


Nails and nailmaking toolsIn 1794, Thomas Jefferson added a nailmaking operation to his blacksmith shop on Mulberry Row at Monticello. He hoped that the nailery would provide a source of cash income while he restored the depleted soil of his farms. Nail rod was shipped from Philadelphia and hammered into nails ranging in size from six-pennies to twenty-pennies. In 1796, Jefferson acquired a nail cutting machine, which made four-penny brads from hoop iron. 

In his farm book, Jefferson wrote: "Children till 10. years old to serve as nurses. From 10. to 16. the boys make nails, the girls spin. At 16. go into the ground or learn trades."1 Up to fourteen young male slaves, aged ten to twenty-one, worked at the forges of the nailery. From 1794 to 1796, while he was in temporary retirement at Monticello, Jefferson calculated the efficiency of the nailers, each day weighing their nail rod and the nails they produced. Most of the slaves who began their working lives in the nailery became tradesmen. Moses Hern and Joe Fossett became blacksmiths; Lewis and Shepherd were carpenters; Barnaby Gillette was a cooper; James Hubbard a charcoal burner; Wormley Hughes a gardener; and Burwell Colbert was Monticello butler as well as a painter and glazier.

The nailery was quite profitable in its early years, supplying nails throughout Albemarle and Augusta counties. Management problems and the competition of cheaper imported nails later made it only an intermittent source of income. No orders for nail rod were recorded after 1823. 

Primary Source References

1791 May 27. (Jefferson's Travel Diary). "Waterford [NY]. Saw nails made by cutting them with a pair of shears from the end of a bar of iron, the thickness of which corresponded with the thickness of the nail, and it's breadth with the length. We saw 120. cut off in a minute, and 24. headed in a minute, which would amount to 20. a minute cut off and headed. But they make habitually about 4000. a day. The iron formed into bars costs about 50 per cent more than nail rod. The sheers cost 9. dollars. The bit is sometimes welded to the sheers, sometimes fixed on with screws so as to be taken off to be ground. They are made at Lebanon in N. York. The lever vice for heading is very simple."2

1795 March 11. (Jefferson to Henry Remsen). "Indeed I would be glad to know the cost of the cutting and heading machines, and of the right to use them if under a patent."3

1795 April 2. (Jefferson to Henry Remsen). "I have also recollected that at either Troy or some other little town up the Hudson I saw a man cutting the 4d. nails and that the implements were of very small cost, and not under a patent, and I suppose this to be the method of cutting to which your letter refers. I therefore have concluded to ask the favor of you to send me immediately all the implements (if they be few and of little cost as I suppose) ...."4

1795 April 29. (Jefferson to Jean Nicolas Demeunier). "... I now employ a dozen little boys from 10. to 16. years of age, overlooking all the details of their business myself, and drawing from it a profit on which I can get along till I can put my farms into a course of yeilding profit. My new trade of nail-making is to me in this country what an additional title of nobility, or the ensigns of a new order are in Europe."5

1795 June 18. (Jefferson to Henry Remsen). "...  I observed you expected Mr. Burral to be shortly in New York and to give you further information on the subject of the machine for cutting nails. Without waiting for the further information, (as I am much pressed for nails) I am disposed to accept his offer of making a machine for 40. Dollars. The difference of a few dollars is of little account in adopting a thing which is to be of long continuance. So that unless you shall have received information which in your own judgment renders some other more eligible, I will pray you to get one of Mr. Burral's very complete, and to forward it to Colo. Gamble in Richmond, with 500. ℔ of the proper iron for cutting 4 pennies, and a few (say 100.) 4 pennies, 6 pennies and 8 pennies, of the cut nails, by way of sample."6

1795 July 10. (Jefferson to James Lyle). "A nailery which I have established with my own negro boys now provides completely for the maintenance of my family, as we make from 8. to 10,000 nails a day and it is on the  increase."7

1795 November 14. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "Biby's boats are arrived and have not brought my 4d. nail machine nor hoop iron. Gamble & Temple write me it was in the hands of a Mr. Ball, and sent somewhere up, perhaps to Westham. Will you be so good as to have it sought for, or it may lie months in some out of the way place, or perhaps never be found. It had better come up in some waggon to Colo. Bell, if it can be handily got aboard one, as there is no Milton boat down, and the article is important to be guarded against miscarriage."8

1796 January 11. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "I am in hopes my cutting machine, hoop iron and rope will be up soon. If this should find you in Richmond perhaps you can aid in getting them off, as also 3. or 4. tons of nail rod lodged for me at Gamble & Temple's."9

1796 February 7. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "Faris is gone down and promised me to call on Britton again for the machine. The difficulty has been to find him at home. Should he fail this time it would be well to have the machine carried back to Colo. Gamble's, from whence it can be got at any time. ... My nailrod is arrived safe. The hoop iron I presume is with the cutting machine as they came together."10

1796 February 22. (Jefferson to Archibald Stuart). "I have just recieved my cutting machine, and iron for 4. pennies, which I shall shortly begin to cut."11

1796 February 22. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "My nail machine with the hoop iron is safe arrived by Faris ...."12

1798 February 12. (James Madison to Jefferson). "I returned from Albemarle on Monday last, where I consulted with your Nailor on the subject of the Sprigs & lathing nails not included in the parcels prepared for me. I found that the cutting machine has never been reestablished, & I did not request that this slight kind of nails should be made in the common way. If you mean however that the machine shall be set up again, or it be a part of your plan to make such  nails in the common way, there will be time eno' for either before I shall want them."13

1798 February 22. (Jefferson to James Madison). "Tho' it is my intention, & the orders I left were, that the cutting machine should be repaired, yet I think it would not be adviseable for you to depend on it, as to your sprigs & lathing nails if you want them before my return ....  immediately on my return my own wants will oblige me to recommence cutting."14

1801 March 24. (Jefferson to Thomas Perkins). "[M]y nailers are employed in hammering  nails, except one cutter for four pennies only, our neighborhood requiring no other cut nail. so that it is but a small business with me. ... I am not certain that I perfectly understand the manner of making the vice for holding and pushing up the hoop iron; tho I have some idea of it; and you do not mention whether you cut your hoop cold or warm. I cut it warm, in which case the frequent changes necessary would waste time."15

1801 May 15. (Benjamin Perkins to Jefferson). "The Letter Inclosed Came to me with a Request to furnish you with a Drawing of a Michene for Cutting Nails for which My Brother Obtained a Pattent—the Drawing Shall be Handed to you & any Explanations Necesry given by wednesday Next— ...."16

1806. "Jim makes 15 pounds. 20d Nails
Barnaby makes 10 pounds, 10d do.
Wagner Davy makes 10 pds. 10d do.
Bedford John makes 8 pounds. 8d do.
Bedford Davy makes 6 pounds. 6d do.
Bartlet makes 6 pounds. 6d do.
4 Boys makes 8 pounds. 6d
[total] 63 pounds nails"17

1807 May 13. (Jefferson to Edmund Bacon). "Those who work in the Nailery are Moses, Wormly, Jame Hubbard, Barnaby, Isbel's Davy, Bedford John, Bedford Davy, Phill Hubbard, Bartlet, & Lewis. they are sufficient for 2. fires, five at a fire."18

1812 June 22. (Charles Artzt to Jefferson). "The object upon which my choice fell, was nail cutting machinery; for, altough these machines, used in the vicinity of Boston, were almost in every respect perfect uncorrigible, yet there had one important improvement often been attempted and never been attained, viz, to have these machines selffeeding. It seemed therefore the most convenient for my purpose, to undertake the invention of a selffeeding nail=machine, and after four months working, i had the satisfaction, to present to the public a complete selffeeding nail machine, made on a small scale, yet all from metal, and only fit to cut nails from hoops of tin, or lead or copper."19


Further Sources

Related Links:
Exhibition: Making Monticello: Jefferson's 'Essay in Architecture'
Enslaved Trade Workers
Plantation Database
Jefferson Today
“excepted from the whip altogether”


bsawyer's picture
As part of the Mulberry Row Reassessment Project, I recently worked on catalouging all the artifacts excavated from this iron-working complex on Mulberry Row. What struck me the most as we worked through the collection was the sheer quantity of iron recovered during excavation; in fact, we catalogued over 900 pounds of iron. Given the amount of iron left behind, it's dizzying to think of how much usable iron was produced by the men and boys working at the nailery.
Beth Sawyer
jgalle's picture
Jefferson's nail making operation began in the early 1790s and was an example of Jefferson's attempts to not only make his plantation profitable but also self sufficient. Enslaved boys learned how to make nails and this experience working on Mulberry Row may have given some boys the opportunity to acquire occupational skills that allowed them to continue working in the skilled trades, as opposed to laboring in the fields. Archaeological investigations at the nailery were conducted in the 1980s and the collections were recently reassessed by the Monticello Archaeology Department. Artifacts, field records, and photographs of the site can be viewed through The Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (
Jillian Galle


Login or register to participate in our online community.