Nails were a valuable commodity during the depression and World War II, because you wasted nothing. For World War II there was another reason. Every piece of available metal was collected to melt down to make munitions for the war effort. The nails were mostly collected from construction sites, then sorted, straightened, and stored for reuse or scrapped for the metal. Child labor, in a good sense, was often used to do the sorting and straightening.
Dolores and I both had this job. Dolores in Denver and myself in Salt Lake City. We were both doing it the summer of 1941 when she was 10 and I was 9 years old.
When a neighbor re-roofed an apartment building next to where Dolores lived, the old shingles were stacked in the alley and the neighbor offered to pay Dolores ten cents an hour to pull all the nails from the shingles and straighten them. Decade old shingles are extremely dirty — but outfitted in old clothes, a claw hammer, and a brick for an anvil, she started the grimy task. It went well for about four hours until the local junk collector came up the alley. After getting flashed, she went home and her mother told the neighbor that working unsupervised in the alley was no job for a young lady. Dolores earned $0.50 for her half-day work, and that ended her nail-straightening career.
I got to work as a nail straightener for a full summer. A University of Utah professor living next door believed in introducing youth to the work place early as part of their education. He worked summers in a lumber yard office and hired me with money out of his own pocket to work in the same lumber yard. I worked 4 hours a day, several days a week and was paid $0.50 for the half day. His wife was surprised that he was paying me enough so that I could take the bus to and from work.
My first and primary task was sorting nails although I also did other things.
Construction workers would search their work site and drop any nails they found into a bucket and returned the bucket to the lumber yard. I would get the bucket and sort the nails into like-kinds for reuse. If the nail was bent, I would straighten it using a hammer and small anvil. If the nail could not be salvaged, usually due to a totally mangled head, it went into a scrap-metal bucket.
In the depression, if you saw a penny, or the more rare nail, you picked it up and recycled it as appropriate. Now, many ignore a penny and a nail is only picked up if it threatens to puncture your tire — even then it is usually thrown someplace to rust, away from tires.
We would have never known that we both had the job of straightening nails the summer of 1941 if not for our morning coffee, biscotti, and morning talks