I have used this phrase countless times either in the above iteration or as “deader than a doornail”. But one day it crossed my mind as strange. All nails are dead, inanimate objects, why should doornails be any more so? Is the intention referring to death by doornail? A little research has revealed, no.
This is quite an old term, actually. It is referenced in print as early as 1350, and Shakespeare used the term in King Henry VI, Part 2, 1592:
Brave thee! ay, by the best blood that ever was broached, and beard thee too. Look on me well: I have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.
I learned from the Appalachian Blacksmiths Association that in the day of forged or cut nails, manufacture was quite labor-intensive. Therefore nails were reused when possible. The tips of the large-headed nails used in hingeing doors (remember, this is before the usage of wood screws, for which a satisfactory lathe to manufacture was not invented until the late 1700’s) were turned back into the wood as shown in the rendering at the left, a procedure called “clenching”. Nails were so scarce and expensive in pre-1850 America that people would burn down dilapidated structures just to sift the ashes to recover nails. Clenched nails like the one shown above, however, were too bent to be reused, and were christened “dead nails” by the construction industry. Hence the term, “dead as a doornail”. This research led me to another question. Why is the term “penny” used to describe the size of a nail? It is its weight in pennies or some equivalent? Again, no:
The term “penny” is still used when referring to a nail’s size. In the 1600’s when it is believed this term came into use, the English monetary unit was the Pound Sterling (£) which was divided into shillings and pence. The cost of 100 nails in 1600’s pence is how nail sizes are described to this day. For example, 100 small nails, selling for 4 pence were called 4d nails (4d is the abbreviation for 4 pence and is still used to describe a 4-penny nail). 100 larger nails sold for 10 pence are 10d nails, and so on. The price of nails was apparently near constant for a long period of time, and thus led to standard sizes. Nail recovery has been all but eliminated with the use of modern wire nails.
Wire vs. Cut
Forged nails are square, each side being tapered to the tip. Cut nails were quicker to manufacture, and were characterized by two tapered sides and two parallel sides, where they were sheared from steel plate. A second machine forms the head of a cut nail. Wire nails are round. Steel wire of varying sizes is fed through a machine that grips the wire, cuts it, chisels the point, and forms the head all in one operation, churning out thousands of nails per minute. Wire nails are cheaper to produce, but the cut nail has about four times the holding power of its round cousin. You now know more about nails than you ever cared to.