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Heilbroner and Thurow, Economics Explained (1982, 1998):

Iron nails were so scarce that pioneers in America burned down their cottages to retrieve them.

Another writer (2003):

Nails at one time were so expensive and in such demand that it was customary for the owner to burn down an abandoned building in order to recover his nails. In 1645 the colonial authorities in Virginia offered to pay the owner of an abandoned building the worth of its nails if he would not resort to burning the structure.

Another (1915):

For nails were imported articles and woefully expensive: so hard to come by were they that it was customary on abandoning a house, to burn it to the ground in order to collect the nails from the ashes. In fact, a special law was eventually enacted, in 1645, to prevent the practise:

"That it shall not be lawfull for any person so deserting his plantation as aforesaid to burne any necessary houseing that are scituated therevpon, but (he) shall receive so many nailes as may be computed by 2 indifferent men were expended about 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."

The quoted 1645 law can be found here.

A blog-post briefly argues it's a myth:

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? ... 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.

The above debunking seems plausible, but I wonder if there's a more thorough and well-researched account of whether this is really a myth.

  • 4
    The abandoned buildings were burnt down in order to retrieve the nails. The blog-post just puts this into clearer context, which is fairly clear already in two of the quoted source . Therefore its not so much a debunking as a contextualising. (The first quote is misleading though, as 'abandoned' is quite important ) – user43646 Jan 24 '18 at 13:04
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    I can attest to being in Mexico on a church mission about 25 years ago and witnessing a couple of carpenters there who used recycled nails for much of their construction. (However, these appeared to be nails extracted from dismantled construction, as they all needed to be straightened before use, and I don't recall any evidence of burning.) Values may have shifted somewhat of late due to Chinese manufacturing, but items such as nails can possess a relatively high value in economically stressed societies. – Daniel R Hicks Jan 24 '18 at 23:22
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According to the article The Hardware Trade in the United States in The Chautauquan, volume 29, pages 114-119 (May 1899):

The nails the colonists brought over were handwrought and necessarily scarce and expensive, as were all articles of manufactured iron. In the early days of Maryland and Virginia, people burned their abandoned houses for the sake of recovering the nails in the ashes ; while in the rougher types of buildings, the undressed logs were held together by wooden pins.

See also page 97 of The Archaeology of Martin's Hundred, especially footnote 38, which gives quantitative values for nails in 1620s colonial America, and explains that both buildings and wrecked ships were burned to recover nails.

  • Do you have the rest of the article for the first quote? The quote given simply repeats the claims that (i) the nails were "scarce and expensive"; and (ii) "people burned their abandoned houses for the sake of recovering the nails in the ashes". – Kenny LJ Jan 25 '18 at 23:30
  • I can't find any "quantitative values for nails in 1620s colonial America" in footnote 38, which mentions only "super-premium prices", a term I'm not too familiar with. Quote: "Just as ships wrecked and grounded off Bermuda were burned to the waterline to retrive [sic] nails were selling at super-premium prices. That may explain the relative dearth of 1½" nails on Martin's Hundred sites". – Kenny LJ Jan 25 '18 at 23:32
  • @KennyLJ in the main text of page 97, 20 shillings per 1000 nails after the massacre (citing to footnote 37, a 1623 reference) and 22,500 nails for 3 pounds and 10 shillings, citing to footnote 38, which contians a September 1620 reference. – DavePhD Jan 26 '18 at 12:33
  • @KennyLJ see also "Further research reveals that Elizabeth Patterson, linked up with Colonel William Patterson through smoking ashes where his home had stood. During his absence some son of Belial had burned down his house to get the iron nails." books.google.com/… – DavePhD Jan 26 '18 at 13:47

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