Revisited Myth #19: Iron nails were so valuable that people burned down buildings just to get the nails.



Here’s a good illustration of how a myth gets started. Ken Schwarz, Colonial Williamsburg’s blacksmith since 1982 and the master blacksmith since 2003, says he hears this one every time they make handwrought nails at the Anderson Forge. It’s not true, yet there is a nugget of fact if you dig deep enough . . .

. . . back to a single Virginia law in the 1640s that forbade the burning of buildings for the nails. However, Ken explains that during the earliest years of the colonial period—the first few decades of the 1600s—buildings were constructed in a very slipshod manner, with wood touching the ground. They were meant to be temporary, because the earliest settlers hadn’t planned to “settle” at all–they were here in the New World to make a quick fortune and go home. So they built shoddy buildings that quickly rotted. Therefore, it was an occasional thrifty practice to get rid of these shacks by burning them, but then, why not sift through the ashes for the nails? Ken says the nails weren’t all that valuable, but why waste them?


The law aimed to stop Englishmen from deserting their plantations and from burning the buildings as they left (and taking the nails with them) by giving them the estimated number of nails. Here, read it yourself.

And it is further enacted by the authoritie aforesaid, That it shall not be lawfull for any person so deserting his plantation as afore said to burne any necessary houseing that are scituated therevpon, but shall receive so many nailes as may be computed by 2 indifferent men were expended bout the building thereof for full satisfaction, reservinge to the King all such rent as did accrew by vertue of the former grants or planting of the same from the expiration of the first seaven years.

Perfectly clear, right?

Okay, the translation: in essence, it says, if you’re going to desert your plantation (which you are leasing from the king, you don’t own the land), don’t burn the worthless buildings for the nails before you leave; we’ll give you as many nails as two men estimate are in the building, but you won’t get any of your rent back from the king.

Ken Schwarz says that this practice didn’t last long. Slipshod building techniques soon gave way to sounder architecture. No one would ever have burned a decent building for its nails. 

It’s also relevant to note that there were blacksmiths among the earliest settlers to Jamestown and archaeologists have uncovered nails and nail-making tools from the early years. So nails were not unduly rare or expensive; nor were they something to waste.

Schwarz says “Some legends persist because they appeal to the masses. This seems to be one of those appealing legends.”




8 Responses to Revisited Myth #19: Iron nails were so valuable that people burned down buildings just to get the nails.

  1. robert giles says:

    I can’t comment on land based wooden structure, but this was a practice among ship builders. A beached ship would be burned to the water line to recover not only nails (of all sorts and sizes), but all kinds of brackets, shafts and pins. Obviously they salvaged all they could before the burning.

  2. James "Jake" Pontillo says:

    I seem to remember in Walden Pond,by Thoreau,that He burnt a small cabin and recovered the nails or am I wrong? It Has been Years since I read it…

  3. Jim C says:

    This myth was repeated on the “History Channel” last night on a show about 100 best inventions. But, there is very little real history on a channel so named but that thrives on alien my
    ths and reality TV anyway.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Really? I wish I’d seen that. But I don’t watch much of the History Channel, which seems odd for an avid historian like me, but as you so eloquently put it, there isn’t much real history on that channel. I wish they would show some of the great documentaries or taped lectures by professors and writers and museum curators. Oh well.

  4. I mention the following merely as a bibliographic note, as I have not tried to verify it against other period sources:

    Johann David Schoepf’s TRAVELS IN THE CONFEDERATION, Volume 1, (covering his post-war tour of American in 1783-84) includes the following reference about a NJ sheet copper mill:

    But the war coming on, the work once more came to a stand; the workmen were scattered, and finally the establishment was burnt by American troops, merely to get nails from the ashes.

    You can find the full reference here:

  5. Perry mcLemore says:

    Seems to me that this is another attempt to revise a true account of history, to try and show that you cant trust any historical truth. If you listen to the story that is told you see that it was the nails they were after, or the government of the day would not have paid them off in nails. also lumber and trees were so abundant that they would burn vast amounts of them to make charcoal for the blacksmith and foundry men. thanks for your thoughts on the subject.

  6. historicbuzz says:

    Also, as any blacksmith can tell you, iron burns. If the house is solidly built, and especially if there’s a lot of hardwood, the fire can get hot enough to so severely damage the nails, that they become useless.

  7. Peter says:

    It works as an idea–wipe the slate clean, we’re movin’ on! Only take valuables you can carry.

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