Date nails were first used in Europe in the mid-twentieth century and North America towards the end of the century, as timber shortages led to the chemical treatment of railroad ties. Date nails were driven into each newly treated tie so later maintenance crews would know the installation date of each rotted, deteriorated tie.

The 1930s saw the peak of date nail use with over one hundred railroads employing them. By the 1970s, the nails' production and use decline as chemical treatment became more advanced and as it became more common for years to be stamped directly into the wood.

While date nails were also driven into bridge timbers, utility poles, and mine props, the nails used to make this item are mostly from railroad ties.