I had a conversation with Bob Leonard at the International Primitive Money Society table at the ANA in Pittsburgh this month. One topic was the subject of an article by Bob in the April 2023 IPMS Newsletter. With permission, here's an excerpt and a question for readers.
From Farran Zerbe's "Moneys of the World Collection" exhibit
Were iron nails really used as a medium of exchange in Colonial America, or is that story a
numismatic urban legend? This is the challenge that Gary Beals posed to Len Augsberger of the Newman Numismatic Portal in February of this year. Len referred Gary to me, and I began investigating.
We can't find a collector who has not heard that somewhere, sometime long ago in the United States, nails were so hard to come by that they were as valuable as coins...nails were sometimes used as a medium of exchange in America's colonial and pioneer period. Every American coin collector has heard of that.
I think I have found a numismatic urban legend… There are no specific examples documented in (the) period of iron nails being traded as money. Somehow no one has found reference to any monetary value being placed on nails—which obviously would have been only in a specific location during a specific period of time. How many nails per coin? What size were the nails? Where did the iron come from?
These are good questions. The standard account of Colonial American
nail money can be found in J. Earl Massey's chapter,
Early Money Substitutes, in Studies on Money in Early America by Eric P. Newman and Richard G. Doty (The American Numismatic Society, New York, 1976), p. 17:
Important among strange money substitutes were nails. Before nail-cutting and-heading machines were invented in the late 1700's, nails were forged by the hand of the blacksmith, and they were valued in terms of English pence…
I somehow managed to miss this story. But what are the facts? Bob's article goes on to cite references to "nail money" in U.S. numismatic publications back to 1927, including Louis Jordan's recent look into examples of nails being used as commodity payments in the 1600s.
Gary is working on an article on the topic. Can anyone help with additional citations or examples from original source materials? Is "nail money" just a myth?
Regardless, phrases like "ten penny nail" persist to this day, as shown in this photo I shared with Bob at the show - it's a mural advertising a restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh - I snapped it walking back from lunch one day at the convention.
Wayne Homren, Editor
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