Nails date back to ancient Egypt and serve a variety of purposes. Nails have been used not only in construction - for which they were truly intended - but also for tortuous purposes. Their value and production went through many phases, from handmade, rare, and expensive to machine-made on a mass scale.
Nails have been used for thousands of years. The first nails were made of wrought-iron. Nails made of bronze were found in ancient Egypt, dating to about 3400 BCE. While nails have mostly been used as fasteners, there are references in the Bible of other uses: the wife of Heber drove a nail into the temple of a Canaanite commander; King David collects them for Solomon's Temple; and Jesus is crucified to the cross with them.
In medieval England, nails were valuable and traded as an informal medium of currency. Nails were made by hand until about 1800 by artisans called nailers. Before the invention of the slitting mill,slitters cut iron bars into suitable sizes for nailers to use. By the time of the American Revolution, England was the world's largest manufacturer of nails. In the American colonies, nails were expensive and difficult to acquire, and people burned abandoned houses just to collect the used nails. It became such a problem that the state of Virginia had to ban the burning of one's house upon moving. Families often made nails in their own small manufacturing setups within their homes, which they bartered with or used themselves.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter about how he himself was a nail maker, and that the growth of trade within the American colonies might have been slowed due to the prohibition of new slitting mills by the Iron Act of 1750. Wrought-iron nails continued to be produced into the 19th century, though production reduced as the industry evolved, leaving the wrought-iron nails for uses for which softer nails were not suitable, such as horseshoe nails.
The slitting mill was introduced to England in 1590, making it easier to produce nail rods. However, the process of making nails was not truly mechanized until 1790-1820, when the United States and England invented a variety of machines to automate the production of nails from wrought-iron bars. The cut nail (or square nail) was born. Cut nails are much stronger and are used for more heavy-duty jobs and sometimes historical renovations. Jacob Perkins patented the cut nail manufacturing process in America, while Joseph Dyer did so in England. Dyer set up an operation in Birmingham, UK, where he made cut nails from sheets of iron. His operation expanded, reaching its height in the 1860’s before declining due competition with wire nails.
Wire nails are made by drawing coils of wire through a series of dies until they reach a specific diameter, at which point they are cut into short rods and subsequently formed into nails. Wire nails are also called French nails because they originated in France. The nail-making process became increasingly automated over the next few decades to the point where almost no humans were required to produce large quantities of nails. Nails were no longer expensive or difficult to find, and the use of wrought-iron for nails drastically reduced. By 1913, 90% of the nails manufactured were wire nails. Today, while there are nails for different purposes, nearly all nails are made of wire - though the name "wire nail" now typically refers to smaller nails.