According to locals, the saying “cash on the nail,” meaning an immediate payment, may have originated in the city of Bristol, England.
Located outside the Corn Exchange building on Corn Street are four bronze pedestals called The Nails. They were moved here from their original location on Tolzey Walk, a covered area alongside All Saints Church. The pedestals were used by merchants to negotiate over while making deals and possibly to display samples of the wares up for sale. When the deal was done, payment was made by placing money on a nail, hence the term “cash on the nail.”
However, while many Bristolians believe this to be the case, the saying, in both English and other European languages, certainly predates these particular pedestals. Unfortunately for the locals and their legends, it’s more likely these places of business became known as Nails because of the term which was already a common usage.
The four nails all have a raised rim, supposedly to stop coins from rolling off the top of the pedestal. They each have a slightly different design and were made at different times. It appears they were not owned by individual merchants, but were communal property donated by individuals.
One of the nails is marked around the rim with the name John Barker, a rich merchant who dealt in wine during the 17th century and at one time served as member of Parliament for Bristol during the reign of Charles I.
The oldest is undated but is thought to be Elizabethan and little is known of its origin. The second oldest, also from the reign of Elizabeth I, was donated by Robert Kitchen who died in 1594. The dates of the other two are listed, according to the Historic England database, as 1625 and 1631.
These remarkable remnants of Bristol’s mercantile past are protected at the highest level under British conservation legislation. The Nails were moved to their spot outside the Corn Exchange when it was built, perhaps to indicate that this was now the place to do business.