Tenter Hooks

Project details

  • Object number – 864-JR; 3787-JR; 3788-JR
  • Material – Iron
  • Place of Origin – England
  • Date – Early 17th century
  • Context – James Fort
  • Location – Archaearium
  • Category – Exchange

More than 270 small L-shaped fasteners known as tenter hooks found in James Fort may represent goods traded between the colonists and the Virginia Indians.

In England, these hooks were used by the textile industry. Cloth, particularly wool, needed to be washed and pounded to rid the textile of natural oils and to thicken the fibers. The fabric was then hung to dry on wooden tenters, a line of posts with pairs of horizontal rails. Tenter hooks on the top and bottom rails stretched the cloth to keep it from shrinking.

But these tenter hooks, ranging in length between 1 and 2 inches, were not used in early Jamestown to produce cloth. The lucrative textile industry was highly regulated in England, and competition from the colonies would not have been tolerated. Instead, tenter hooks were probably used to stretch and dry animal skins the colonists received in trade from the Indians. Furs — particularly beaver, otter, bear, and raccoon — were a welcome commodity in London, and in 1610 the Virginia Company encouraged the colonists in that direction: “beaver skins being taken in wintertime will yield good profit; the like will otter skins.”

(Note: the figurative use of tenterhooks to describe someone’s suffering or suspense goes back centuries. For example, in 1601 Robert Chester wrote in Love’s Martyr or Rosalin’s Complaint: “Rack on the tenter-hooks of foule disgrace.”)

Bly Straube, Former Senior Archaeological Curator

Jamestown Rediscovery