More than a century ago, picture nails were used in some households for hanging frames and propping up the bottom edges of mirrors. But these specialized pieces of hardware were never especially popular, and they seem to have survived only in small numbers. Most collectors believe decorative picture nails evolved from coat hooks in the late eighteenth century. Most of the examples that survive today are from the nineteenth century, usually about an inch in diameter, made of creamy white porcelain, pressed glass or stamped brass.
In the September 2000 issue of Martha Stewart Living the editors created a beautiful editorial feature showcasing these antique examples mixed with their more current cousins, curtain tiebacks. The editors suggest using curtain tiebacks as decorative picture nails since they are often larger and easier to find today, including the antique examples, which are less expensive. I love these photographs by William Abramowicz. They reinforce what Martha has always taught: that the everyday objects we live with and admire are often works of art themselves, that rethinking and re-imagining an object's purpose can yield striking results.
Spanning the nineteenth century, a group of stamped-brass and gilt-on-brass tiebacks includes one with thistles (bottom right in the top frame), circa 1815. Another with a foil-backed pressed glass center is from the 1840s. The tieback at the bottom is one from Martha's collection.
The nine roundels in the frame above are made of pressed glass, embellished with touches of coloured paint on the inside, filled with poured plaster and ringed in brass or nickel. The nail head at the top is made of amber glass.