For Want of a Nail

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

It is amazing what specific skills a person can develop in a niche profession. My grandfather on my father’s side was an upholsterer. Each Summer I would spend a couple of weeks with my Grandparents in their upholstery shop.  I would watch as sofas would be brought into the shop, and as my grandfather removed the worn fabric and cushions a rain of coins and small curiosities would generally hit the floor. After he had repaired and hot glued the sofa frame and such, the fabric was to go back on. It was at this point, that I received my first of many warnings as a very small boy, which I’ve never forgotten.  My grandfather would take a handful of tacks (small sharp nails) and put them into his mouth. “Don’t even think about doing what your grandfather just did,” my grandmother would admonish. Believe me, I was never tempted, I was only stunned in slight disbelief. My grandfather would then stretch the fabric with a stretching tool of his own design, and in quick succession bring a tack hammer with a magnetic end up to his mouth, which had a nail head first ready to be plucked, and quickly hammer in a succession of tacks to hold the fabric. It was a mesmerizing thing to watch. For me it was similar to sword swallowing, or fire eating, at a carnival side show. As I recall the tacks had been blued, and on the side of the box it said: Sterile. Apparently my grandfather was not the only one who engaged in this method of applying tacks.

During the summer in the small town where I first lived, I would hear the pounding of nails as houses were being constructed. The frames looked like strange, deformed, beige, whale skeletons with men pounding nails into them. The men generally had a type of half-apron on which had the name of the local lumber company printed on it.  The apron had three open pockets where they kept nails, and withdrew them while building a house. One particular day I was tagging along with a fellow named Gunnar, and we went to get nails. Into the hardware store we went, and Gunnar requested ten penny nails. I was certain they cost ten pennies per nail. They must be very good nails at that high of a price. It slowly dawned on me that the designation was not cost, but was some manner of stating their size. Perhaps they weighted ten pennies? Indeed the nails were weighed in a saddle shaped piece of metal which fit into a scale (i.e. a scale-pan). But the weight was in pounds. I began asking how the sizing worked, but do not recall what I was told, other than I found the answer very unsatisfactory. I still had very little idea what this all meant until I decided to write this blog.

According to Wikipedia:

United States penny sizes

In the United States, the length of a nail is designated by its penny size, written with a number and the abbreviation d for penny; for example, 10d for a ten-penny nail. A larger number indicates a longer nail, shown in the table below. Nails under 1¼ inch, often called brads, are sold mostly in small packages with only a length designation or with length and wire gauge designations; for example, 1″ 18 ga or 3/4″ 16 ga.

Penny sizes originally referred to the price for a hundred nails in England in the 15th century: the larger the nail, the higher the cost per hundred.[4][5][6][7] The system remained in use in England into the 20th century, but is obsolete there today. The d is an abbreviation for denarius, a Roman coin similar to a penny; this was the abbreviation for a penny in the UK before decimalisation.

Here is the table:

So the length designations are related to nail prices from the 15th century?—in England—when apparently they used d as an abbreviation for penny?—but actually a Roman coin which was like a penny? How could we in the US ever conceive of changing such an irrational and antiquated system like this? Clearly it suits us.

Of course the British being the stuffed shirts we in the US know them to be have never bothered to change—-oh wait—-here’s what Wikipedia says:

Most countries, except the United States, use a metric system for describing nail sizes. A 50 x 3.0 indicates a nail 50 mm long (not including the head) and 3 mm in diameter. Lengths are rounded to the nearest millimetre.

For example, finishing nail* sizes typically available from German suppliers are:

Hmmm, Wikipedia doesn’t specifically mention the UK, but by omission it leads one to believe that the British probably have had the good sense to measure nails in mm rather than 15th century pricing. If nails had been designated in the metric system when Gunnar was allowing me to tag along with him, he might have purchased an 80 x 3.1 nail and told me  it was 80 mm long, and perhaps even 3.1 mm in diameter. The world would have been much more cogent and meaningful. But even today we in the US refuse to change anything involving our weights and measures—no matter how irrational. The slow accumulation of negative consequences of our refusal reminds me of a famous rhyme:

As a metaphor for the lack of metric in the US, I think that nails it. The nail that sticks up, gets hammered down.

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:

The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays  that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website,  but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.

The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.

The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.

14 thoughts on “For Want of a Nail

  1. Just a thought: why not make some divulgative material (spending what has to be spender: money shouldn’t be a concern), perhaps similar to the excellent Swiss commercial (by Ricola) “Chrüterchraft” (or the “force of herbs”, in Swiss German)…?

    “Metric makes you feel better…

    Metric is rational…

    Metric favors relations (also with the world)…

    Metric is simpler…


    Metric is the future…”

    Etc. etc.

    Thus, the powerful force of metric (not only of herbs)…! 🙂 🙂

    Maybe, today (see also weak ideals in the populace), it’s the only way to convince people (and thus also politicians), in today’s media-driven society – who knows (otherwise, the situation seems to be rather desperate, sadly)…

    • Hmmm – spent, of course: sorry for the grammar error…

      (Anyway, sadly, you will probably never go metric, if “ordinary” people aren’t put in the condition to really *want* it…)

      • “Anyway, sadly, you will probably never go metric….”

        The Maven and I have recently been discussing optimism versus pessimism. The problem I see with optimism is that it is, essentially by definition, both unjustified and unjustifiable. If it were not these things, it wouldn’t be optimism. But the problem with pessimism is far worse: it is inherently self-fulfilling. On those occasions in history when things have somehow gone right (and I do understand the parochialism inherent in any such judgement), it was because the optimists prevailed ~ even if they were absolute idiots.

        This blog exists because a couple of natural pessimists have elected to cock a snook at the fates.

        • I’m all for optimism, if possible: but sadly the fact seems to be that neither people nor politicians seem to do anything in order to improve things on the metrication front.

          Of course, my semiserious proposal to make some also funny and intuitive media campaign for metrication is something that should also have been done by politics, if it weren’t as it has become today: for example, our usual example of Australia was an example of good politics, made for the real and positive needs of the people and the nation.

          Lacking, today, such a “political” responsibility… well, what can be done? Metrication could perhaps be pushed forward by “illuminated” and innovative corporations (like, for example, Apple and others), by academic institutions, by citizens’ associations, by individuals, and so on: but this doesn’t seem to happen, sadly; one even sees that US scientific divulgation programs broadcasted on TV seem to use US customary units (at least the translation is metric!), which is really irrational, as science and technology should be the main fields where metric should be used above all.

          Evidently, some form of cultural revolution is needed, in order to promote metrication in your country: and one can maybe be optimistic by looking forward towards this, at least…

          … BTW, you are not alone in using obsolete units for measuring nails: after a quick research on Google, I found that in Europe an old system called “Jauge de Paris 1857” or JdP is still incredibly in use, in parallel with the purely metric one: so, “customary” strikes again, also on the old continent! Rather incredible, indeed…

  2. Plenty of articles still flog the penny designation. If you look in-store, even larger framing sizes (when sold loose in boxes) may mention penny size but ALWAYS give the length in inches, and often the wire gauge, or decimal inch diameter.

    Most of the business has gone to belted nails for nail guns, often described as collated nails (they are bound to a collating strip or belt which is fed into the nail gun). Those seem to be universally marked by inch length and decimal inch diameter, often with secondary designation in millimeters. So, it’s not dead yet, but the penny system is basically superfluous.

    I went to my basement to look at boxes of nails because I knew I didn’t understand the penny system. However, all of my nails have escaped their original boxes and are (mis)organized in various jars and trays. I looked online for framing nails at a number of hardware stores. I saw NO nails marked exclusively by penny system for length.

    • I wonder how many of the nails we buy today are hidden metric. If they are made in China, the Chinese could easily make metric nails for the world and only label them per American requirements.

      Unless someone actually measures them they can only be assumed to true penny/inch sizes.

      A few years ago I bought a table requiring some assembly. All of the fasteners had an inch thread (like 0.25 – 20). But the length was an even number of millimetres and the head required a metric tool (like a 5 mm hex key).

      On other occasions I also encountered Chinese bolts with an inch thread, but rounded millimetre lengths and requiring an millimetre tool. This flooding of the US with hybrid corrupted inch fasteners is quite common.

  3. For the benefit of new viewers: Metric Maven blogs generally appear on days divisible by ten, or at least as close as possible to that in the case of February. This seems appropriate for a metric blog. The exception is March. If you’re looking for the Maven’s latest, it will appear in four days, on 03-14. The blog began two years ago on “Pi Day,” and he has decided to make Pi Day a tradition. All appearances to the contrary, he’s a sentimental guy, ok? In the meantime, please feel free to browse the archives.

  4. Great, Carl Sagan, with his pure genius of science, technology, art and poetry all together (a new Leonardo, who knows…); and besides always using metric (De Grasse, learn…), he also correctly said, for example, kìlometers (not kilòmeters) – most excellent, indeed.

    Well… other times, even other universes, maybe – today’s world sadly looks really dull and also dumb, in comparison.

    No sense of a shared future, no (r)evolution…

    • Your main point is well taken. I often fault myself for saying “kil-AH-met-ER” instead of the far more defensible “KIL-oh-MEE-ter.” My only defense is that I feel it is more important to drag my fellow countrymen, kicking and screaming if need be—which it generally is—into the twenty-first century. We can leave it to our children and grandchildren on the Starship Enterprise to work out matters of pronunciation and orthography.

      • Of course, the pronunciation also heavily depends on the language: for example, in Italian, chilòmetri is unavoidable; and in Scandinavian languages, just as another example, kilométer is the way to go.

        In English, the two alternatives remain: but certainly Sagan did it the right way, so to speak.

        Then, its rather irrelevant if people say kìlometers or kilòmeters – the important thing is that they begin to use this term, and others of the SI…

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