[Portrait of Isaac Jefferson (1775-c.1850), Tinsmith, blacksmith and nailer, Enslaved artisan at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (Unattributed)]
Excerpt from “THE ROSEHEAD NAIL”
“But can you forge a nail?” the blond boy asks,
And the blacksmith shoves a length of iron rod
Deep in the coal fire cherished by the bellows
Until it glows volcanic.”
- A. E. Stallings (Stallings)
When they came back from their service in the Revolutionary War, you might have found Warwick Green and Newport Green in their own nailer shop along the Dedham road in Medfield, Massachusetts just south of the eastern end of today’s Vine Lake Cemetery (Callendar). They had finally been paid for their six months of service at West Point two years after the fact, in 1782 (Mass. Archives), a likely source for at least part of their financing .
Let’s take a moment to step back in time and watch Warwick at work. With iron bars fresh from the slitting mill a few days earlier, Warwick Green of Medfield grabs the unheated end of the nearly white glowing rod, now malleable, from the fire and places it on his anvil. He soon works its end to a thin point and forms a “shoulder”on it to define the length of the nail, followed by a partial cutting by pounding it on his chisel and breaking it off with his header tool. He grabs his hammer and bears down on the top, creating the telltale rosebud-like nail head (How).
Believe it or not, both Warwick and Newport would have likely made one about every thirty seconds, typical for the times, thus the largely forgotten expression, “Busy as a nailer.” Their services were in high demand as exemplified by this Boston Gazette Medfield help ad placed in the fall of 1775:
Medfield, October 3d, 1775. Wanted immediately two or three Nailers that understand that branch of Business ⸻Such persons may have present Employ by applying to Jesse Pratt of Medfield” (Advertisement Boston).
The nails that the two men produced were precious items in Medfield and elsewhere before, during and after the Revolution. It is speculated by some that derelict houses were set on fire at one time or another to recover the product. A century later when nails were much less expensive due to advances in manufacturing, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of their continued value in her novel, Little House on the Prairie, based on her own childhood experiences (Sichel).
“Now Pa carefully took the nails …., and with ringing blows of the hammer he drove them into the slab. …. [E]very now and then a nail sprang away from the tough oak when the hammer hit it, and if Pa was not holding it firmly, it went sailing through the air. Then Mary and Laura ….searched in the grass till they found it. Sometimes it was bent. Then Pa carefully pounded it straight again. It would never do to lose or waste a nail” (Wilder).
Newport likely learned his trade from his owner, Moses Hartshorn, a Medfield blacksmith, before the War (Bill). It is believed a neighbor upon witnessing how cruelly he was being treated bought him and then released him from bondage (Morse). Another enslaved man in town, Peter Warren, had to buy his freedom in 1769 from his owner, Medway’s Joseph Lovell (Jameson). As for Warwick, he became free some time before the end of the Revolutionary War, evidenced by his receipt of pay directly for military service at West Point (Mass. Archives).
Years later, when Newport sold his nail shop, he sold his inventory along with it, which included “bellows, two hammers & one Stake” (Green to Mann). His colleague Warwick ended up moving to the neighboring town of Dover along with his family (1810 Census) but he is purported to have produced the nails used to build the First Parish Unitarian in Medfield (Crawford), a church built in 1789 that is still standing in the center of town (First). And somewhere in the archives of the Medfield Historical Society lie nails that he hand crafted, to be rediscovered by a new generation.
Newport and Warwick were advanced in age when, in 1813, a nail factory was built along the Mill Brook south of Main Street. The Industrial Revolution would lead to the total mechanization of their former trade in the years to come. According to President John Adams in a letter to the founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the real reason for the end of slavery in Massachusetts “was the multiplication of labouring White People, who, would no longer suffer the Rich to employ these Sable Rivals, so much to their Injury” (Adams) In other words, white men could not compete with the free labor of the enslaved, especially with so many men returning after the Revolution. So in a real sense, the two men would have had two strikes against them, mechanization of the industry and the color of their skin. What work or profession could Newport and Warwick have found in the first half of the nineteenth century?
If you would like to pay your respects to all three men, Warwick, and Newport, as well as Peter, head over to Baxter Park in Medfield at the intersection of Routes 109 and 27 where you will see their names listed on the Revolutionary War memorial. Ironically, the park is named after an enslaver, Reverend Joseph Baxter, the town’s second minister (Baxter), a subject for another day.
NOTE: The finding of more sources or interpretations may affect the conclusions.
1810 Census. Dover, MA. Dover, MA 1810 Federal Census. https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GYBD-9DY6?view=index&personArk=%2Fark%3A%2F61903%2F1%3A1%3AXH2W-797&action=view
Adams, President John. Letter to Jeremy Belknap on slavery in Massachusetts. Massachusetts Historical Society. https://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=586&img_step=1&mode=dual#page1
“Advertisement.” Boston Gazette, or, Country Journal (Watertown, Massachusetts), no. 1065, October 16, 1775: . Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers. https://infoweb-newsbank-com.nehgs.idm.oclc.org/apps/readex/doc?p=EANX&docref=image/v2%3A14F3A2FAE57307E9%40EANX-1044526B11E7B285%402369654-1044526B8994CF74%403-1044526C777DE282%40Advertisement.
Baxter, Reverend Joseph – MEDFIELD – 1745 – Suffolk County Probate, Suffolk County First Series, Record Books, 1628-1899, Docket 8263, Will 37:518. https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-C9YT-9NMJ?cat=120561 This link will bring you to Baxter’s probated inventory that includes his enslaved worker, Nanny.
Callendar to Green. “Massachusetts Land Records, 1620-1986,” images, FamilySearch https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G9Z3-QGC7?cc=2106411&wc=MCB5-YPN%3A361613401%2C362225301 : 22 May 2014, Suffolk > Deeds 1788-1789 vol 162-164 > image 462 of 904; county courthouses and offices, and offices. Transcription by Susan G. Elliott, October 31 2023.
Crawford, Alice. Personal interview, 50 Granite Street, Medfield, MA. January 1, 1991. The interview was conducted by Debbie Irwin and Lisa Quintiliani. The Green Family. Further documentation is needed to substantiate this claim. The reference to the interview is filed in the “Green” folder at the Medfield (MA) Historical Society.
First Parish UU of Medfield. “Our History.” https://www.firstparishmedfield.org/our-history/
Green, Newport. Bill of Sale. Medfield Historical Society. The bill of sale owned by and on display at the Medfield (MA) Historical Society.
Green to Mann. “Massachusetts Land Records, 1620-1986,” images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G9Z3-QGC7?cc=2106411&wc=MCB5-YPN%3A361613401%2C362225301 : 22 May 2014), Suffolk > Deeds 1788-1789 vol 162-164 > image 462 of 904; county courthouses and offices, Massachusetts. Transcription by Susan G. Elliott, October 31 2023.
“How to Make a Nail in the 18th Century.” Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qF6mXGrV4tM
Jameson, Ephraim Orcutt, The History of Medway, Mass., 1713-1885. Town of Medway, 1886, Medway. https://archive.org/details/historyofmedwaym00jame/page/320/mode/2up?view=theater
Massachusetts Archives. Familysearch.com. Revolutionary War Muster Rolls v 49 p 164. https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSJ7-493F-P?cat=729681
Morse, Mary. “Items and Facts.” Medfield Historical Society. July 3, 1877. Handwritten
Sichel, Daniel E. “The Price of Nails Since 1695: A Window into Economic Change.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 36, no. 1 (2022): 125–50. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27099462.
Stallings, A. E. “The Rosehead Nail.” Poetry (May 2013). https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/56231/the-rosehead-nai
Tilden, William Smith. History of the Town of Medfield, Massachusetts, 1650 – 1886. H. E. Ellis, 1887, Boston. Tilden, William Smith. History of the Town of Medfield, Massachusetts, 1650 – 1886. H. E. Ellis, 1887, Boston. https://archive.org/details/historyoftownofm00tild/page/6/mode/2up
Unattributed – Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21874283l
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie. 1935.