When trying to pin down the age of a piece of antique furniture, hardware can provide important clues that place very clear limits on the period from which it originated. The methods of manufacturing something as simple nails and screws have changed greatly over the centuries and can provide a great deal of information regarding an item’s original date of construction.
While they are trivially common today, nails used to be an item of some value. In the not so distant past, each and every nail had to be individually and laboriously crafted by a blacksmith. An experienced smith could make a single nail in as little as a minute, which is quite a long time for something that is now churned out by the thousands using modern mass-production techniques. Nails made in the traditional way were cut and hammered from nail stock, giving them a tapering profile with squared edges. They also typically feature what is known as a “rose head”, as the top of the nail was pounded flat in a device called, unsurprisingly, a nail-header. As it was hammered, the head would often assume a shape reminiscent of flower petals where the iron flattened around the edges. Nails made before the 1800’s typically feature a square cross section while a rectangular shank became more popular from 1800 until the 1880’s. Toward the end of the 19th century, mass-manufacturing saw the rise of the round nail that we are familiar with today. Modern examples are generally made from wire stock and feature a perfectly consistent, round shaft with regular points and heads.
Screws also changed greatly over previous centuries and were not fully machine made until around 1848. Prior to this, screws had been partially or wholly hand made giving them a much rougher appearance. The earliest wood screws dating from the 1700’s can be identified by their irregular thread spacing and lack of a point. Screw heads were invariably of the flat-head variety and the slot had to be cut by hand with a hack saw. As a result, the slot is almost always slightly off-center from the shaft. During the early 1800’s screws were partially machine-turned giving the threads a somewhat more regular appearance, although the heads were still hand cut. After the mid-1800’s, machine manufacturing began to produce screws that resemble those we are familiar with today, although the Philips-head was not invented until the 1930’s.
Like all antique appraisal methods, it is important to note that hardware doesn’t always provide an absolute guarantee of age. It is possible that modern screws or nails are present in a piece as the result of a recent repair rather than being present at the time of original construction. In most cases this will be easily apparent as the modern hardware is found mixed with the older, traditional variety. It is also possible, although somewhat less common, that a modern reproduction was constructed using nails or screws made with traditional methods. With these caveats in mind, however, hardware can provide a wealth of information about the origins of an item.