In my professional work, I perform construction administration and project management with non-profit organizations with roots in the city's community housing movement of the 1970s-1980s. Prior to this, I worked for Outside Development, an architectural research practice where I provided mapping and research assistance, to advocate for a urban form-of-life capable of breaking our dependence on fossil fuels.
I was reading a history of urban tenancy in Manhattan and came across the story of a rags to riches entrepreneur in the 1850 who celebrated his achievements by authoring a lengthy autobiography. The historian Elizabeth Blackman I’m reading, is clearly as tickled as I was, gives this one man and his autobiography a good 5 pages (generally she’s covering whole neighborhoods in half a page, but she really gets stuck on this nail shop). What make this man particularly notable? One, he’s a nail forger—at this time it could take up to a minute to hammer out a nail. Two, labor practices: He starts just as a maker, an artisan, crafting nails alongside his brother. When his brother falls ill he opens a shop front that his brother staffs. This is a successful venture, but with slim margins. When his brother gets sick, he determines a wife to be the optimal substitute. In Grant Thorburn’s words: “The care of a house and store … more credible and wise to marry a wife than hire a housekeeper.” Unfortunately, wife wouldn’t last long. Within three years she’ll need replacing.
But the third point, is that prize that makes this nail-maker’s quest virtuous, or worth all this life lost, is the acquisition of property. Thorburn’s providence is capture of one wood box, held taut, rigid with nails. Don’t worry, I am not so trite to call this house a coffin, but I wouldn’t want you to leave without considering the resemblance.