Student Guest Post: Amanda Gonzalez on Colonial Fasteners

Amanda Gonzalez & Laura Malek wash bones at Rutgers-Camden

During the Fall Semester (Sept - Dec 2017), Kimberlee Moran ran a "Bones and Bioarchaeology" class at Rutgers-Camden to connect students to the Arch Street project.  Over 14 weeks students learned archaeological and anthropological basics within the context of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia's cemetery.  Students helped to clean and assess some of the remains at Rutgers-Camden and helped to organize material culture and human remains at our off-campus facility.  As a final project, several students chose the option of preparing a post for the Arch St Project website.  Our first guest post is from Amanda Gonzalez, a Biology Masters student.

Colonial Fasteners: 200-year-old Nails, Screws, Straight Pins, and Buttons

by Amanda Gonzalez

Upon excavating the remains of our Philadelphian predecessors, various fasteners: nails, screws, straight pins, and buttons were unearthed.   These fasteners not only provide a chronological context, they also provide a glimpse into the time period and burial practices of those buried at The First Baptist Church of Philadelphia during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Some of the more common fasteners recovered from the Arch Street Project were nails, which appeared to be used to secure the coffins together.  Many nails were observed within the wooden boards of the coffins (see Figure 2a & 2b). The First Baptist Church was operational from the early 1700s until approximately 1860 (when the cemetery was purportedly moved).  By analyzing the nails in the coffin, one can approximate the time in which the coffin was constructed.

According to Visser (1997), between the 1790s and the early 1800s, machines were invented to make nails out of bars of wrought iron. The machines worked by cutting the nails off of the iron bar in a guillotine-like fashion. The shank of the nail was manually tapered by moving the bar from side to side.   The heads of the nails were first made by manually hammering the end of the nail until a machine was developed (circa 1820) to pound a head onto the nail.  These are known as type A cut nails as seen in Figure 1.

By the 1810s, a more effective machine was developed.  A nail was cut and tapered by the passing of an angled blade where an iron bar was automatically flipped over after each pass of the blade.  The machine then gripped each nail, forming a head in a continuous fashion, and is evidenced by a more box-like shaped head.  Nails made by this method are known as type B nails as seen in Figure 1 (Visser 1997).

Given the manner in which both type A and type B nails were cut, type A and B nails can be distinguished by the identifying burr marks created by the machine that was used.  Type A nails have burrs on the diagonally opposite edges, while the type B nails have both burrs on the same side where the metal was flipped after each pass of the blade (Visser 1997).

While examining the nails collected from 2nd and Arch Street, I observed what appeared to be an abundance of type A & B nails (see Figures 2a & 2b).  It appears to be that the majority of the excavated coffins are consistent with having been assembled from the 1790s to the 1860s using machine cut nails rather than the earlier hand-wrought nails.   

Some less common fasteners recovered from the site were screws.  Surprisingly, a few a few un-tapered screws were located amongst the larger majority of nails found on site (see Figure 3). 

According to Rybczynski (2000), screws were carved by cutting slots in the heads of nails and manually filing the threading into the nail until the 1760s.  In 1760, Englishmen William and Job Wyatt created the first machine able to mechanically produce screws from wrought iron; however, over a period of 16 years their business failed.  In 1842, a lathe was invented that could manufacture tapered screws (Rybczynski, 2000).  

Given the fact that the screws recovered from the site appeared to be un-tapered, one can assume that the screw in Figure 3 was produced sometime in the late 1700s.

Another type of fastener, the straight pin, is quite different than the aforementioned hardware.   According to Cotter et al. (1994), straight pins were used to secure a shroud around a decedent’s body and was common practice until the late nineteenth century.  However, pins with solid heads were not manufactured until 1824. 

Although the majority of the remains appear to have been shrouded, rather than clothed (as evidenced by the presence of straight pins); there were some rare instances where buttons were recovered— indicating that a few of the decedents may have been clothed at the time of burial.

One rare instance was the recovery of a small, flat button (Figure 4).  This particular button was excavated near the skull of a rather large/tall man.  The button appears to be approximately 1 cm in diameter with a hole in the center.  According to the archaeological button table of Aultman (2017), this button appears to be a “bar type” shank button that is usually made of copper alloy or iron and is composed of two pieces: a face that usually has a large hole in the center and a bar that is either soldered or stamped to the back of the button.  The most popular button (between 1800 and 1870) were iron buttons as they were usually inexpensive, stamped buttons.  The most common iron button had two to five holes; however, there were some two-pieced, self-shanked iron buttons between 1800 to 1870 (Marcel, 2004)

The button excavated from the site (Figure 4) appears to be the less common, iron, shanked button of the early to mid-1800s. 

Coffin hardware, such as the nails and screws, serve as a chronological context for the deceased, which also corroborates the time period in which the First Baptist Church and its burial grounds were operational.  Other fasteners such as straight pins and buttons had quite different functions, but were also used as to date individual remains/artifacts.  The abundance of straight pins versus the rare occurrence of buttons seem to provide additional information regarding the burial practices of the time period.   

Figure 1: From “A Field Guide to New England Barns and Farm Buildings” by Thomas Visser

Figure 2a & 2b: Type B nails in the footboard of a coffin excavated from 218 Arch Street Philadelphia, PA

Figure 3: Colonial screw excavated from 218 Arch Street Philadelphia, PA

Figure 4:  Button excavated from 218 Arch Street Philadelphia, PA


Aultman, J. (2017). DAACS Cataloging Manual: Buttons. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery Website at

Cotter, J. L., Roberts, D. G., & Parrington, M. (1994). The Buried Past: An Archaeological History of Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 321.

Marcel, S.E., (2004) "Buttoning Down the Past: A Look at Buttons as Indicators of Chronology and Material Culture". University of Tennessee Honors Thesis Projects. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from

Rybczynski, W. (2000). One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw. New York: Scribner.

Visser, T. D. (1997). Field Guide to New England Barns and Farm Buildings (Library of New England). University Press of New England.