Gateway to the Classics: Stephen of Philadelphia by James Otis
Stephen of Philadelphia by  James Otis

The Nail Business

This scheme was to make nails, even though we had not been apprenticed to the work. You must know that it costs a pretty penny to bring nails from England, and at the time our people were busy building new houses we could not get enough from overseas, no matter how high a price we were willing to pay for them.

When I heard Jethro's father bewailing the fact that our iron workers could not turn out more than half as many nails each day as were needed, I asked myself why a strong lad who should have wits enough to fashion a nail, might not do so, even though he had not worked three or seven years at the trade.

When I spoke to Jethro regarding the money which might be made by those who would go into the nail-making business, at this time when they were in such demand, he claimed that any one, except a regular thick-head, could hammer out a bar of iron, and straightway insisted that we make a trial of it.

With some of the money earned by turkey-trapping, we bought a small quantity of old iron from the ship Endeavor, and father supplied us with what was needed to set up a forge back of our house.

Surely you would laugh, if I had the time and the inclination to tell you of all the foolish mistakes we made while trying to fashion a serviceable nail. More than once we were tempted to abandon the scheme, admitting ourselves beaten, and nothing save the fact that we could not well afford to lose the money, prevented us from burying the clumsy forge.


The idea of earning money by trapping turkeys to squander it in old iron, was too ridiculous to be set down as a fact, else would we be jeered by every fellow in Philadelphia; therefore, the oftener we failed in our purpose, the harder we worked, until the day came when we showed Jethro's father a nail, claiming that we could make as many in a day as he would need to use.

Now it must not be supposed that we were able to make a bargain simply because of its being Jethro's father. I verily believe he held us to stricter accounting than a stranger would have done, for he hung the nail up on one of the timbers of his house as a pattern, agreeing to take all we brought of that quality, and to pay the same price a like article would cost after having been freighted from England.

This was even better fortune than we had hoped for, and we set about the task without delay, knowing that by working industriously during all the hours of daylight, we two lads could earn not less than four shillings each day, and perhaps more, after we had gained experience.

We did our best to make better nails than the pattern, never allowing ourselves to slip in an imperfect one with the hope that it might pass unnoticed, and this I believe was a good rule, for before we had supplied Jethro's father with as many nails as he wanted, we were urged to work for others, with good promise of selling all we could turn out.

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