Saturday, December 29, 2012

How much did a beaver hat cost?

For those of us who interact with the visiting public at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, one of the Frequently Asked Questions is “how much did a beaver hat cost back then?” The answers include “it’s complicated,” or “it’s hard to tell” or “we don’t really know.” But I think the most common answer is some version of “a lot.” So how much is “a lot”?
As I hope will come through in this posting, the best answer I can come up with at this point is “it was a considerable expense, something like a week’s wages for a working man, so it was limited mainly to the middling and wealthy classes, and it was a sign of a certain social status to be able to afford a beaver hat.” That said, anyone attempting to answer the question can abandon all thought of common prices in the modern equivalent of “thousands of dollars” that I have heard bandied about. There were probably some very expensive hats made for very wealthy customers who were into conspicuous consumption. But if what were commonly called "fine beaver hats" were only a luxury item for the super rich, logic suggests that the fur trade as we know it would not have been sustained on such a large scale over more than two centuries (c. 1625-1850). If you’re ready for this, hold on to your, um . . . hat, and keep reading.
We have a pretty good idea of how much a beaver pelt was worth at Fort Vancouver, either in currency or in trade goods.  
It is much harder to pin down the price of beaver hats in the retail markets of Europe or the USA. In a very direct sense the retail price of hats was not all that relevant for Hudson’s Bay Company’s bottom line. The HBC, after all, did not make hats. What mattered most to HBC was the wholesale price for animal pelts when they were auctioned in London or sold to brokers, who were the buyers at the wholesale auctions.(1)
The fur brokers then sold to hat makers, whose many skilled employees then engaged in something like 30 labor-intensive steps before the fine underlayer of beaver fur was made into felt, which was made into hats. It is generally agreed that pure beaver fur made the best hats, but many “beaver” hats contained only a certain percentage of beaver fur, with muskrat, rabbit, and especially sheep wool making up the rest. One popular (and cheaper) type of hat, called “plated” or “roram,” had a wool felt body with beaver fur brushed onto the outer surface, for looks. And beaver fur was not the only raw material that went into hats, which included mercury used in the felting process, shellac or other stiffeners, cloth liners, leather sweatbands, and silk ribbon or other external hatbands or edge binding. Finally, markups from the wholesale price a merchant paid to the retail price to the buyer of the finished hat, were probably something like fifty to a hundred percent.
Still, the overall market for beaver hats, levels of demand, and affordability relative to common levels of income, are all part of the context for the fur trade, and the success of HBC’s business model centered on the fur trade. In the big picture the broad demand for felt hats that grew in Europe from the early 1600s and fell off dramatically when fashion changed to silk hats in the second third of the 1800s marks the rise and decline of the fur trade as one of North America’s driving economic forces.
With these complications in mind, here are some tantalizing hints:
In the inventory of goods on hand at Fort Vancouver on June 1, 1832, one of the items listed is “24 ladies fine beaver hats” for which the Company paid 11 shillings each. The total cost for 24 hats was thus £13.4s.0d. We know that HBC’s price markup for retail sales was 100% for the general public and its own officers. At that rate, if an outsider showed up to buy a hat (as Narcissa Whitman might have in 1836), she would have paid 22 shillings. The online inflation calculator I find most useful ( says that 22 shillings in 1832 would be roughly equal to £79.70 today, or about $123.00 in today's dollars.(2) “A lot,” right? But not astronomically off the charts. But this was for the women’s model. Apparently there were no men’s beaver hats in stock at Fort Vancouver in 1832.
For another data point: detailed research on the cost of living in London, England, in the 1770s includes a man’s “fine beaver hat” for 21 shillings.(3) That is roughly equal to £106.00 today, or $164.00 in today's dollars. This source says that the same 21 shillings in the 1770s would pay the wages of a journeyman silversmith for one week, pay for 12 French lessons, or buy a dozen bottles of Portuguese wine. A wig for a clerk in a public office or a brass barometer cost 18 shillings. A pair of velvet knee breeches cost 30 shillings. A pair of men’s silk stockings retailed for 17 shillings 4 pence. The weekly wage of an unskilled laborer was 9 shillings. In other words, a fine beaver hat was probably out of the reach of the working classes. And while it was not a trivial expense for a man about town, a pair of silk hose cost only a bit less, a case of imported wine would cost just as much, a wig somewhat less, and velvet breeches considerably more.
Another source, discussing Pennsylvania in the era of the American Revolution, the late 1700s, notes that “old ladies, among Friends [Quakers] . . . wore large white beaver hats, with scarcely the sign of a crown, and which was, indeed, confined to the head by silk cords tied under the chin.  Eight dollars would buy such a hat, when beaver fur was more plentiful. They lasted such ladies almost a whole life of wear.” Quakers, while solid citizens (and wearers of beaver hats, as the image on the Quaker Oats box confirms), were not known for ostentatious dressing.
As for men’s hats, the same Annals of Pennsylvania had this to say:

“   Until the period of the Revolution, every person who wore a fur hat had it always of entire beaver. Every apprentice, at receiving his "freedom", received a real beaver at a cost of six dollars. Their every day hats were of wool, and called felts.  What were called roram hats, being fur faced upon wool felts, came into use directly after the peace, and excited much surprise as to the invention. Gentlemen's hats, of entire beaver, universally cost eight dollars.” (4)

The Measuring Worth online inflation calculator suggests that eight dollars in 1785 (taken to be “directly after the peace” of 1783), would be something like $185.00 today. And the six dollars for an apprentice’s graduation gift, a “real beaver” perhaps not of “entire beaver” but surely better than his everyday wool felt hat, would be something like $140.00 today.
            BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!
            Although the Hudson’s Bay Company was much more concerned with the wholesale price of raw furs, they did buy hats to stock their trading posts. I’ve already mentioned woman’s fine beaver hats in 1832, when no men’s hats were included in the inventory. Here is the way the supply of hats that arrived at Fort Vancouver on the supply ship Cowlitz in February1841 appears in Company records: (5)

This is the transcription, beginning right after the 4 gross (576) “Brass Jew’s Harps,” with quotation marks and “ditto” expanded:

                                                                                 Per item cost               Total
       #   Description                                                 shillings/pence               £/s/d
     20   Men’s s[uper]fine Black Beaver Hats                 19/0                    19/0/0
     40   Men’s fine plated hats                                           9/0                    18/0/0
     30   Men’s fine waterproof hats                                  12/6                  18/15/0
   120   Men’s Com[mon] wool hats                                  2/9                  16/10/0
   110   Men’s fine wool hats                                             4/6                  24/15/0
     30   Men’s Spanish hats                                             19/7                    29/7/6
     20   Men’s Spanish hats                                             13/1                    13/1/8
     30   Wom[en]s Round Beaver hats                              7/0                  10/10/0

Followed by 40 doz[en] tinsel hat cords, 15 dozen oiled silk hat covers, and 2 dozen waxed silk hat covers. (Apparently then as now people with nice hats wanted to protect them from the rain.)
            This is how these figures roughly translate into wholesale costs and retail prices per hat in today’s US dollars: (6)

                                                                              Wholesale cost         Retail Price  
            Description                                                  (US dollars)         (US dollars)
            Men’s s[uper]fine Black Beaver Hats             101.00                   202.00
            Men’s fine plated hats                                       48.00                     96.00
            Men’s fine waterproof hats                               66.10                   132.20
            Men’s Com[mon] wool hats                             13.90                     27.80
            Men’s fine wool hats                                         23.50                     47.00
            Men’s Spanish hats                                         105.11                   210.22
            Men’s Spanish hats                                           69.30                   138.60
            Wom[en]s Round Beaver hats                          37.30                       74.6

There’s a lot to absorb here. One take-away is a solid comparison of the prices of the various types and grades of hats listed. Roughly speaking, a fine beaver hat cost twice as much as a plated hat of wool felt with beaver fur applied to the surface. A fine wool felt hat cost half as much as a plated hat, and a common wool hat, in turn, cost about half as much as a fine wool hat, and only a fraction of the price of a fine beaver hat. There were 230 wool felt hats in this shipment, compared to only 20 fine beaver models. That would seem to be appropriate for the market demand HBC might have expected in 1841, before the influx of wagon-borne American “emigrants” began to arrive in large numbers, at a time when there were relatively few men in the entire Columbia District/Oregon Country who might be looking to acquire a fine beaver hat in any given year--or who could afford one.
For a few more comparisons, in the same 1841 shipment the wholesale cost of a flintlock musket with 3 1/2-foot barrel, HBC’s “common Indian gun,” was 22 shillings, more than a fine beaver hat at 19 shillings. A “dark blue cloth capot with hood” cost the company 21 shillings 6 pence. A 3 ½-point blanket cost the Company 9 shillings 3 pence, and a man’s “flashy flowered silk vest” cost 9 shillings 4 pence, meaning that 2 such blankets or vests were worth basically the same as a fine beaver hat. A “men’s fine cloth jacket” cost 19 shillings 6 pence, slightly more than a fine beaver hat. A pair of “men’s blucher shoes” was 8 shillings 6 pence wholesale. “Men’s grey trousers” cost the Company 13 shillings 6 pence a pair. And so on. If you needed a good hat, as every gentleman did, it was an expense roughly in line with other clothing items (or bed covers) worthy of your status.
As for the “Spanish hats,” the best of which cost more than a fine beaver hat, I speculate that they were wide-brimmed hats of high quality materials and construction, favored by the californios and possibly destined for the HBC’s “California Establishment” at Yerba Buena, the old name for what became San Francisco. If so, they would probably have been traded for a certain number of dried cowhides—but that’s material for a future posting.
(For a little more context: if you search the Internet for “beaver hat prices” you will see that in today’s market a dress fedora or cowboy hat claiming at least some beaver fur in the felt will run you anywhere from around $300 to $800—not counting specialty hats made for the reenactment crowd and those with an itch for a 100% pure beaver hat that absolutely must be scratched.)
If anyone reading this has any other information that might help us pin down the retail prices of beaver (and other types of) hats “back in the day,” I would very much like to receive an email note at tomholloway62(a)

(1) An informative overview of the English fur market, hat manufacturing processes, and wholesale marketing strategies is David Corner, “The Tyranny of Fashion: The Case of the Felt-Hatting Trade in the Late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Textile History, 22:2 (Autumn 1991). I thank Dr. James Hanson of the Museum of the Fur Trade for pointing me to this source.

(2) "Fort Vancouver Depot Inventory, 1st June 1832," Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA), B/223/d/16-40 (microfilm in Fort Vancouver NHS research library). At the 1832 exchange rate between British and US currency, 22 shillings was equal to $5.34 at that point in time. Any calculation of currency inflation (loss of purchasing power) over long periods is only approximate. For one thing, the basket of goods used to measure purchasing power has changed dramatically from 1832 to today. As the economists at Measuring Worth point out HERE, "there is no single 'correct' measure of value over time, and economic historians use one or more different series depending on the context of the question." I use these numbers only as something better than the alternatives, which are a shrug of the shoulders, or a wild guess.

(3) Liza Picard, Dr.Johnson’s London (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), p. 296 in the Appendix listing “cost of living, currency, and prices” during the active professional life of one of the major literary figures of London in the 1760s-70s, Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1794), of whom James Boswell wrote the famous biography, Life of Samuel Johnson.

(4) Watson, John F., Annals of Pennsylvania, Vol 1 (1857)
The online version is unpaginated. These quotations are from the following section, Ch. 15-18:
I am grateful to Dr. James Hanson of the Museum of the Fur Trade for pointing me to this source.

(5) “Invoice of Goods Received at Fort Vancouver on Barque Cowlitz, February 1841,” HBCA, B/223/d/139 (microfilm in Fort Vancouver NHS research library), I thank Theresa Langford, Curator, and Meagan Huff, Museum Technician/Librarian at Fort Vancouver NHS, for their assistance in providing access to this and other sources available at the site.

(6) The wholesale cost in 2011 dollars is derived by the conversion and inflation calculators at Of course such calculations over extended times are rough approximations, but they are better than mere guesses, as explained in THIS ESSAY on the Measuring Worth site or in the FAQ at the bottom of THIS PAGE. The retail price is calculated on the cost+100% markup HBC charged to “Settlers and Missionaries” as well as to the Company’s Commissioned Officers (Chief Factors and Chief Traders) during the winter season. HBC employees of the “servant” category were charged a 50% markup over the company’s wholesale cost. These pricing policies are discussed in John Hussey, “Historic Structures Report” Vol. 1 (1972), p. 190-1, note 17, reproduced in Lester A. Ross, “Fort Vancouver, 1829-1860: A Historical Archaeological Investigation of the Goods Imported and Manufactured by the Hudson’s Bay Company,” (Typescript, Fort Vancouver NHS, 1976), Table 12, p. 150.
            Hussey's work and other online sources on Fort Vancouver in the Hudson's Bay Co. era are discussed in THE POSTING which immediately precedes the one you are now reading on historic beaver hat prices.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Fort Vancouver Online

            If you are reading this you are already hooked up to the Internet, which means you have access to an immense amount of information about Fort Vancouver and its history. If you're looking for a quick orientation to the blacksmith and carpenter shops in context, go HERE. But for much more, including details about the various buildings inside the stockade, when and how they were built and how they were furnished, lists of the tools and other items used there in the Hudson’s Bay Co. era, links to many sources are imbedded in the official website of Fort VancouverNational Historic Site, which you can find by typing that name into a search engine like Google, or simply clicking on the blue link. (In the description that follows, any text in blue is already a link.)
On left side of the Park’s main page is a list of topics under the heading “Explore This Park.” It’s not the same as exploring the real park in person--you won't see the imposing stockade or hear the wild geese squawking as you approach or smell the coal fires of the Blacksmith Shop or feel the soft underfur of the beaver pelt on the counter of the Indian Trade Shop. Tabbing through the website is more like a digital version of exploring a mineshaft with several branches that then branch into other branches. If you get lost you can always use the “back” button to turn around, or start again at the entrance (the Park’s main page) and click your way into other topics.
Below the “Explore This Park” tab the fourth item down is “History and Culture.” Clicking your cursor on that tab reveals three subheadings: People, Places, and Collections. Clicking on the “Collections” tab reveals several other topics, one of which is “Research.” Clicking on the “Research” tab reveals several other topics, including “Online Publications.” At this point shift your attention to the main box in the middle of the screen, where there are three items in a bulleted list. Click on the middle item. “Historical Studies.” You will see a photo of the Grant House from an old postcard, so now you need to scroll down to show the titles of the many individual documents available for viewing or downloading. You’re almost there!
You should also be able to go directly to the page with the Grant House image by typing Fort Vancouver Historical Studies (without any quotation marks) in Google's search box. Scroll down and dig in.
            Feel free to browse in the documents listed. If you click on a colored tab the book or article listed will appear on your screen (you might have to wait a while for some of the larger documents to download). You can read online, but most if not all of these items are in PDF-Portable Document Format, so by using your Internet browser’s menus you should be able to use the “Save As” command to save the loaded document to your own hard drive. Once you have saved it you can open and read it at any time without being connected to the Internet. You can also send any saved PDF document to other people  as an attachment to an email message, or save it to a memory stick (aka flash drive) or burn it onto a CD and share it with others that way, or to store it off your computer if you want to free up space on your hard drive. You can even print it out if you want to use the paper and ink to do so, or print selected pages to avoid having to take detailed notes on specific topics.
            You now have access to a mini-library of research reports and interpretive material related to Fort Vancouver. To go a little further, let’s say you’re interested in information about the blacksmith shop. Beginning in the 1950s NPS Historian John Hussey did a lot of research on the site, and in the 1970s he produced two lengthy volumes called the “Historic Structures Report.” The purpose of these studies was to help the NPS in reconstructing and furnishing the historic buildings now at Fort Vancouver NHS, as they appeared in the mid-1840s. Scroll down to Volume II of this series:
Hussey, John A. Historic Structures Report: Fort Vancouver National Historic Site,Volume II. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1976. Chapter V is on the blacksmith shop. But load this link only if you want to see what the original pre-computer 1976 typescript looks like. Unlike Vol. 1, this version of Vol. II cannot be searched by the computer. You need to scan the pages onscreen with your own eyes. 
There is a better way:
          There is another online version of both volumes of Hussey’s Historic Structures Report. This one is searchable by any text string, and the volumes are divided up into separate documents for each chapter. Click on the Table of Contents. The chapter headings should show up as links (blue font). The chapters in Volume II are helpfully outlined. Clicking on each heading will bring up that chapter as a separate document. Chapter V is on the blacksmith shop and its Appendix has a named list of blacksmiths at Fort Vancouver,1828-1854. The Carpenter Shop is discussed in Chapter XVII. Go back to the Table of Contents for other chapters. There is also a list of illustrations including the Vavasour diagram of the stockade layout in 1845, the Covington map of 1846 showing the riverfront installations and the Village, and many other images. His bibliography lists many of the print and archival sources available as of the mid-1970s.
          Hussey's work is not the end-all, but it is the essential foundation for any further reading and research on Fort Vancouver in the Hudson's Bay Co. era.

Once you have clicked through the sequence of links described above you will have hints about what else is available via the official NPS website, by clicking along other branches of the groups of links that appear at every step. One of the other shafts in this digital mine that appears under the “Research” tab is the list of “Links to Other Online Resources,” managed by Chief Ranger and Historian Greg Shine. There you will find links to several archives and libraries that have made digitized material available online.
          Other sources on the NPS website include a Cultural landscape Report compiled in 2005, which has a summary overview of the HBC era on pages 14-22. An earlier and much more detailed 2-volume Cultural Landscape Report done in 1992 includes a chapter on the 1824-28 period, when Fort Vancouver was located at the present site of the Washington State School for the Deaf, and another chapter with an extensive treatment of the 1829-46 period, when the main fort grew in the location of the presently existing reconstruction. This 1992 study quotes at length from HBC correspondence and eyewitness accounts by many of the visitors who spent time here in the HBC era. The discussion of the sawmill is of considerable interest to volunteers in the reconstructed carpenter shop. The endnotes to the 1992 CLR provide extensive bibliographic information on the many sources used.

Another important source is Bruce Watson,  Lives Lived West of the Divide: A Biographical Dictionary of Fur Traders Working West of the Rockies, 1793-1858 (Vancouver, B.C.: Centre for Social, Spatial and Economic Justice, 2010). This is a comprehensive 1200+ page compilation of individual biographical and employment information on HBC personnel and activities in the Columbia District, including any available information on their wives and children. It also includes a life history of HBC’s supply and trading ships, and a history of the various regional trading posts throughout the Columbia District (and beyond, in Alaska, California, and Hawaii), and related material. Anyone interested in the people, not only the British, Canadian, First Nations, and Hawaiians, but also USAmericans and Native American leaders, who were active in the fur trade west of the Rockies during the period covered in the title, should have this source saved on their hard drive.
The quickest way to find this book online is click on this link: “Lives Lived West of the Divide” or type that title into Google or your favorite search engine, and see what comes up. It is available in two formats. If you prefer to have a paper book in your hand and on your shelf, you can buy it in three volumes, each of which runs more than 400 pages, for $13.50 each, or $40.50 plus shipping. Or you can download the entire 1,200+ page book and save it to your hard drive—for free. That’s right, complete, legal, at no cost, and searchable. For example, if you want to find anyone who worked as a blacksmith or carpenter, type that keyword into the search box and your computer will find them for you.
Many books on aspects of Fort Vancouver’s history have been scanned and can be retrieved via Google’s “Books” feature. If the copyright has expired, which is the case for most titles published in the 1800s, you can often download the entire book for free and save it to your hard drive for later reading. To get into Google Books go to the Google main search page. There should be a list of services across the top of the window, the last one being “more,” with a tiny triangle indicating that there is a menu attached. Open the menu, go down to “Books” and select it. A window should appear asking if you are “Researching a topic?” Enter your keyword(s) into the box and enter Google’s virtual library. (This has all been translated to work on the iPad and probably other tablet computers, via Google Books or Google Play.)
Start with authors and titles if you have them, but you don’t need exact titles to start searching. Such keywords as Fort Vancouver, fur trade, Columbia District, Oregon, Hudson’s Bay Company, or the names of individuals like John McLoughlin or Peter Skene Ogden will yield interesting results. If "read" appears after the publication date you can usually download the whole thing for free. If "preview" appears you can read many pages, but not all, online. If "snippet" appears you can find most of the places in the text where your keyword appears, with a couple of lines before or after, but not the whole text of the book.
One of my favorite free titles from Google Books is by John Dunn, History of the Oregon Territory and British North-American Fur Trade; with an Account of the Habits and Customs of the Principal Native Tribes on the Northern Continent (London: Edwards and Hughes, 1844). Dunn was an HBC clerk and Postmaster (labor foreman, nothing to do with mailing letters) for several years, and lived at Fort Vancouver in the late 1830s to early 1840s. Chapter XI of this book, starting on p. 141, is one of the most detailed descriptions we have of daily life at Fort Vancouver in the HBC era, with many social, economic, and cultural details. (If you've ever wondered how salmon was pickled in brine and packed in barrels for long-term preservation, this is for you.)
         From 1838 to 1842 US Navy officer Charles Wilkes sailed around the world, and his exhaustive and detailed report was published in 5 volumes as Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (London: Wiley and Putnam, 1845). Volume IV includes Wilkes's description and commentary on the trip during 1841 from Hawaii to Nisqually at the base of Puget Sound then up the Columbia to Fort Vancouver, up the Willamette to Champoeg, and on up the Columbia to Walla Walla. All 5 volumes are available free from Google Books, but you will need to look at the title page of each one to identify Vol. IV--or click on the linked text above. (There is a discussion of Wilkes's map of Oregon Country/Columbia District HERE.)
Another important traveler's account is Paul Kane, Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America from Canada to Vancouver’s Island and Oregon Through the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Territory and Back Again (London: Longman, 1859). Kane’s party crossed the continent following the route of the HBC Express Brigades from Montreal, descending the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver. Chapter XII, on p. 171, begins Kane’s detailed discription of the site in late 1846, by which time John McLoughlin had resigned and moved to Oregon City, James Douglas and Peter S. Ogden were the Chief Factors in charge, and the HMS “Modeste” was lying at anchor in the Columbia River in case push came to shove with the Americans over the boundary question that was coming to a head.

But not all freely accessible online material is found in Google Books. For the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company and Canadian exploration, including a lot of material related to Fort Vancouver, a major source is the Champlain Society, based in Toronto. To see what is in this collection click on “Champlain Society Digital Collection” or type that name into the search box of Google or your search engine of choice. For an overview click on the “Browse” button in the lower right corner to get a links to the 81 authors represented in this collection.
For anyone who wants to dig deeper, the letters Chief Factor John McLoughlin wrote to the HBC high command (called the Governor and Committee) are an important source. These letters amount to extensive reports and most are many pages long. They were recovered from HBC archives and published in the 1940s by the Champlain Society in three thick volumes covering 1825 to 1846. This is not summarized historical interpretation, but the raw material of historical analysis, primary documents. So it helps to be familiar with the general context of HBC and Fort Vancouver’s place in its history to be able to understand what McLoughlin is talking about and appreciate the details in these letters.
To find John McLoughlin’s letters in the Champlain Society Digital Collection, go back to its search page (via the link always in the upper right corner of the screen) and change “search in” from “full text” to “author.” Then in the “for” box type “McLoughlin” and press your Return key. Boxes should appear listing all three volumes. Click on the blue text in any of the titles, and start reading.
These Champlain Society digitized volumes cannot be downloaded onto your hard drive complete, but when you’re reading a page that contains information you want to save for future reference, you can save each page individually as a PDF. This is very useful to avoid having to copy out extensive quotations or complex statistical tables.
          You might also find previous postings on this blog of interest. As of the end of December 2012, people have looked at this site more than 4,000 times since it was launched in June. Judging from the 'hit' counter the most popular postings seem to be "How much was a beaver pelt worth?," "What was a 'Made Beaver' worth?," and "How was the northern border of California set?" I think my personal favorite is "How did Sauvie Island get its name?" Volunteer blacksmiths seem to have gotten something out of "Did Fort Vancouver blacksmiths make beaver traps?" and "Do You Do Nails?Click on the month tabs in the upper right quadrant to uncover the titles of other postings.
With these suggestions, the notes and bibliographies in many of the sources noted, and a little more internet browsing you can probably find other items to satisfy your own particular curiosity. If you find great stuff or already have favorite online sources not mentioned here, I’d like to hear about them. Email me at: tomholloway62(at)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Do You Do Nails?

       A common question visitors ask in the reconstructed carpenter shop at Fort Vancouver NHS is whether Hudson's Bay Company carpenters used nails in construction and other purposes, and if so where did they come from. Carpenter shop volunteers, in turn, commonly describe the post-on-sill construction of Fort Vancouver buildings as requiring no nails or other metal fasteners, except for those in the floorboards and to attach roofing material. So were nails used? Archaeological evidence says yes, as 15,227 nails of various sizes and configurations (as well as header tools used by blacksmiths in making nails) had turned up in excavations conducted on the site from the late 1940s up through the mid-1970s. As to where they came from, the two logical sources would seem to be hammered out in the post blacksmith shop, or made in Europe and brought on the annual supply ship.(1) To approach these questions some context beyond the Pacific Northwest frontier is useful.
       By the 1830s what has been called the First Industrial Revolution was well underway in Europe. Following the adaptation of the steam engine for industrial use in the late 1700s Britain took the lead in applying steam power to mechanized production in factories that produced many basic and standardized items much more abundantly and cheaply than was previously possible. With the invention of nail making machines in the late 1700s, nails joined textiles among the many items that began to be mass produced.(2)
       These developments meant that many things that previously had been made in small quantities by labor-intensive manual methods could be purchased in bulk from manufacturers at lower cost. Fort Vancouver in the Hudson’s BayCompany era was on an isolated frontier, the far edge of the Europe-centered commercial networks. But the Company's business was commerce, and as long as the maritime connection was maintained it could acquire just about whatever Europe could provide.
       The detailed invoice for European products that arrived at Fort Vancouver on the Barque 'Brothers' in 1844 for Outfit 1845 (which I have used previously in discussing blankets and capots and beaver traps) lists no fewer than 430 thousand nails of various types and sizes coming from London in a single shipment. Two hundred thousand were for attaching roof shingles, leaving nearly a quarter of a million nails in sizes from one inch to seven inches. See the full list below.
       Fort Vancouver blacksmiths might have needed to make nails and spikes on occasion or for special purposes, and more nails may have been made on site in the early years at the Vancouver location. But in view of the supplies coming in from English factories by the mid-1840s it would have been wasteful of the time and talents of skilled smiths to put them to work hammering out small nails in large quantities. 
       This is the full list of nails delivered to Fort Vancouver in the barque 'Brothers' in 1844. I retain the Roman numeral "M" as it appears in HBC shipping lists and inventories, to indicate one thousand. The "d" indicates the "penny" size of the nails following English nail size conventions still in use in the USA:

1 M      round boat nails 2 3/4 inch
2 M      2d brad nails
5 M      3d brad nails
6 M      4d brad nails
6 M      6d brad nails
20 M    brass chair nails
8 M     10d clasp nails
10 M    24d clinch nails
10 M    36d clinch nails
7 M      die head deck nails 5 inches
5 M      die head deck nails 6 inches
3 M      die head deck nails 7 inches
7 M     die head deck nails 7 13/20 inches fine draw
1 M     counter plough nails 2 3/4 inches
1 M     counter plough nails 2 inches
8 M     cooper's 3d rose nails
50 M   14d fine drawn rose nails
50 M   20d find drawn rose nails
10 M   24d fine drawn rose nails
10 M   30d fine drawn rose nails
200 M  4d fine drawn shingling nails
5 M     2d clout head tack nails
5 M     4 ounce machine tack nails

     The cost of these nails to the Company was £115.1s.1d, or just over 115 pounds sterling. The Measuring Worth online calculator suggests that would amount to about $13,000 in today's dollars. (3)

(1) Another possible source of nails recovered archaeologically was USA manufacture, resulting from US Army occupation of the original HBC fort after HBC left the site. The nails recovered included 7,794 of wrought rod (51%), but the method and location of manufacture, whether manual or industrial, or in Europe or at Fort Vancouver, are undetermined. There were also 7,493 cut nails (49%), which could not have been made at Fort Vancouver. These findings are discussed in detail in Lester A. Ross, “Fort Vancouver, 1829-1860: A Historical Archaeological Investigation of the Goods Imported and Manufactured by the Hudson’s Bay Company,” (Typescript, Fort Vancouver NHS, 1976), pp. 902-922.
     I thank Heidi Pierson, Museum Specialist on the staff of Fort Vancouver NHS, for pointing out that archaeological evidence suggests more hand-wrought nails were used in the HBC era than might be suggested by looking at one shipment arriving from England in 1844. Heidi has prepared a very useful "mini-guide" to old nails, available HERE.
    In the course of working up this posting I came across an extensive bibliography of literature on the history of nails and their interpretation in archaeology and historical restoration, available HERE.

(2) While child labor was common in the 19th century, the advent of nail-making machinery should get us past the image of workshops full of 10 year-old boys manually pounding out nails with hammer and anvil, from heated iron rod stock.
     It is well known that Thomas Jefferson, who as US President purchased Louisiana Territory in 1803 and famously sent Lewis & Clark to explore it, also had a nail making operation at his Monticello plantation, which employed slaves to make nails by hand from nail rod. In 1796 Jefferson acquired a nail making machine that used hoop iron to make 4d brads.
    The 1844 shipment discussed here included many sizes and shapes of iron and steel bar and rod stock, but nothing called "nail rod." The smallest is “bolt rod” of 1/4” diameter.

(3) The full listing of the 1844 shipment is in Lester A. Ross, “Fort Vancouver, 1829-1860: A Historical Archaeological Investigation of the Goods Imported and Manufactured by the Hudson’s Bay Company,” (Typescript, Fort Vancouver NHS, 1976), Appendix II, pp. 1,384-1,410. Nails are listed on pp. 1,400-1.