Nail straightening: a forgotten skill in a consumer age

Published 12:19 pm Wednesday, June 22, 2022

We all become products of our times, or most of us certainly have. And nowhere is that more evident than in our use — and re-use — of things.

Take the lowly nail, for instance. I use a nail gun these days. I didn’t even know what one was 30 years ago, but if I had to drive finishing nails into carpentry projects today, well, I just probably wouldn’t undertake the projects. It’s as simple as that.

If, on the other hand, you need to dismantle a nailed project today, you have to discard the nails because they are not made to be re-used.

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There was a time when nails were reusable, however, and their re-use was a symbol of the world we lived in.

Growing up, one of my chores was straightening nails. I recall squatting before a piece of thick flat iron with an old wooden-handled hammer and a pile of 10 penny nails on a rainy day. The nails, pulled from fencing, hog pens or elsewhere, were straightened as best they could be and then tossed into a gallon coffee can for re-use.

Today, you’re lucky if the nails you buy are hard enough to be used once, much less two or three times.

But we treat most commodities that way. This “use it and toss it” mentality is one of the biggest differences between our generation and that of our parents and grandparents. And the change has occurred during my lifetime.

We don’t always discard that which we no longer use, of course. Today, the trend is to buy it, use it a few times, then pile it alongside other stuff we’re not using. When our collection becomes overwhelming, we then rent a storage unit somewhere close by and pack away all the stuff we have but don’t need or use. Storage units are among the nation’s fastest-growing industries, and the greatest symbol of consumerism gone amok.

Most of those who lived through the Great Depression weren’t hoarders as many of us are. They didn’t have enough to hoard. But they were, most certainly, straighteners of nails. “Waste not, want not” was for many of them a dream unfulfilled. They wasted not and still wanted for much that we consider essential.

For our rural fathers, it was nails, worn-out plow points, cultivator hoes and baling wire. (There’s another whole topic on the uses that can be made of old baling wire.)

For our mothers, it was clothes and shoes that could be handed down or repaired, and leftovers that could be eaten.

When my wife’s grandparents broke up housekeeping, among the treasures we found were hundreds of aluminum pans such as rolls come in, and pieces of aluminum foil. Straighten it, clean it and aluminum foil can be re-used, and if you were keeping house during the Depression, you did things like that.

Of course, our entire economy has changed so dramatically that buying clothing and other necessities requires a smaller part of the average income than it once did. And with goods relatively cheaper than in the past, it’s often easier and less expensive to replace them than to re-use them.

And besides, who would straighten the nails? You couldn’t get your kids to do it because, between school, soccer, baseball and other activities, they’re far too busy. And it would probably be viewed as some kind of punishment, or even worse, a dangerous activity.

It still seems to me, though, that conservation is a good thing, and that the world’s resources, being finite, should be better protected, if not because it helps the family’s finances, then perhaps because it’s just the sensible thing to do.

Americans are far too busy right now with inflation and other concerns to worry much about conservation, and maybe the whole concept of being conservationists (which, by the way, comes from the same root word as does conservative) is just far too much trouble for us.

But on the other hand, maybe this is the perfect time for us to reevaluate our consumerism. Besides, straightening nails on a rainy day might just be good for the soul, if not the economy.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is