History students are told that early settlers put timbers together with wooden pins because there were so few nails to be had and they were taxed by the Crown. The scarcity of metal and the taxes on hardware were real, but even if nails and spikes had been available, the wood-wise pioneer would have still used wooden pins.
Much mention has been made of early houses being burned for their nails, but this occurred only during wartime. Often the nails remaining were not used for hardware at all, but melted down for bullets and implements. In all furniture and paneling, even when nails became plentiful, wood pins were still used, some as small as present-day brads.
Most wooden nails or trunnels (tree-nails) were put in place hot and dry so that they might swell up with normal moisture and "weld" the joint together as they aged. Nails tend to crack wood, while trunnels never cause cracks. Ancient timbers split with the dryness of age, but their joints and fastening-pins are usually left hard and crackless.
If the covering were removed from old buildings, you would find the framework of the home and the barn exactly alike. The early method of fastening beams has never been improved upon, despite the contention that the "old fellows had all the time in the world." It is we with our time-savers who actually have more time. Using mortises and wooden pins is not just a slower way or a primitive way, it is the best way.
Not long ago, few people were without an old homestead in their childhood background. But now when many people seem to change their home as often as they change their automobile, homes have become apartments or apartment-sized. Big homesteads have disappeared into rarity. Before the next century has passed, the typical American homestead will have become past history.
Excerpted by Maury Tosi
From Eric Sloane's booklet American Yesterday (1956)