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Nail-Cutting Machine

Though Thomas Jefferson's nail-making activity is well documented, his nail-cutting machine has not yet been precisely identified. The Monticello nailery began making hand wrought nails (from six-penny to twenty-penny in size) in the spring of 1794.1 A year later, Jefferson asked Henry Remsen, his former clerk in the State Department, to purchase for him the implements necessary for cutting four-penny nails. He hoped to acquire the rather simple tools (shears, bit, and heading vice) he had seen in operation in New York state in 1791.2

Through Remsen's agency, Jefferson eventually purchased instead a nail-cutting machine costing $40 from a "Mr. Burral" in New York.3 This machine was not received until February 1796, when it 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from hoop iron, the thin iron used for barrel hoops (all the rest of the nails were hand wrought from nailrod).4 In his unpublished thesis, "The Nailery of Thomas Jefferson: Ironworking in Arcadia," David H. Shayt offers this account of the way Jefferson's machine probably worked: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 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 There is, however, no record 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


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