A System of Nails

What’s in Mrs. Hale Receipt for the Million, 1857?

646. Towels — Towels are made of diaper or huckabuck, of a quality adapted to the uses to which they are applicable. They should be one yard long and about ten or twelve nails wide. The best are bought single and fringed at the ends. Other are neatly hemmed, and sometimes have a tape-loop attached to them by which they can be suspended against a wall.

An old Method of  Measurement

While you try to figure out exactly what a huckabuck weave might be, you might want ask to yourself, what exactly does “ten or twelve nails wide” mean?  Huckabuck is easy. It’s a type of toweling consisting of coarse absorbent cotton or linen fabric. Woven on a floor loom, the huckabuck pattern creates an uneven surface which makes for good absorbency. Measuring by nails is another matter all together.

I first encountered a reference to the nails system in a book called Ray’s  Practical Arithmetic, published in  1859.  I was searching the types of learning offered to pupils in that time period for a hands-on history workshop. It turns out this little book was approved for use in many school districts around the country including those in Washington Territory.  I always enjoy using real math problems but I never heard of these:

1. Reduce 19 yd. to nails

2.  159 nails to yards

The answers are, of course, 304 nails and 9 yd. 3 qr 3 na. (9 yards, 3 quarter yards and 3 nails)  Huh?

It turns out that mid-19th century folk enjoyed a smattering of measurement systems for everything from wet and dry materials and shapes to cloth and ribbons.  While bushels and firkins might be used to measure grains and other foods, the nail system was employed in measuring muslin, cloth, tape, etc.. A housewife was very much in tune with this when she went to the general store.

Here’s what she needed to know.

  • There are 2 1/4 inches to one nail.
  • Four nails make a quarter of a yard or 9 inches.
  • Four quarters make a yard. Therefore, there are 16 nails in a yard.

I use this method of measurement with students all the time when putting together copy books. It connects them to children in the past and also gets them practicing math without thinking about it. All you need is a 2 x 4 board about 38 inches long. Mark off a spot to hammer a nail every 2 1/4 inches.

So go back to Mrs. Hale’s receipt. The huckabuck towel is “ten or twelve nails wide.” What is the answer? Get out your slates.


3 thoughts on “A System of Nails

  1. Utterly charming and “new” arithmetic problem and solution. I got .75 yard, or so. (Am I right, Teach, huh? Huh?)


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