Wednesday, January 11, 2012


amstel house, new castle, delaware, dr john finny, 18th century american colonial architecture
Amstel House, New Castle Delaware
built in 1730
Courtesy of

Brick-making began in Jamestown in 1610 and Salem Massachusetts in 1629.  It was not a year round trade.  It required the weather temperature to be above freezing at all times of the day and night.  This was because water used in the process might have frozen and expanded.  
     Clay was dug out of bogs and swamps, and sticks and debris were removed from it.  Water and clean straw were worked into it by being trod underfoot.  (Imagine wine grapes being crushed in a wooden tub).  When the brick dough was moist, but not soupy, it was moved to a molding table where it was rolled in sand and packed into a wooden mold.  (The sand made it easier to get the brick out of the mold after it had partially dried.)  The most common mold used was rectangular, but others were circles, half-circles, and squares.  Once a brick could be removed from a mold without losing its shape, it was turned out on a bed of sand to completely dry (which might have taken as long as six weeks).  After that, it was stacked with other bricks to wait to be ‘fired’ in a kiln. 
Bricks were laid in a single layer on shelves inside a kiln and a charcoal fire was used to heat them (the hotter the better and the darker the finished product).  Part of a brick-maker’s skill was in knowing when bricks were done, after they had stopped steaming and their color had changed.  (This might have taken six days, during which time a fire had been kept constantly going.)  When the bricks were done, the fire was put out and the bricks were allowed to cool (which took up to a week).  A three-man crew in an established factory could turn out more than two thousand bricks a day, but only if they kept six or seven kilns in operation.  In family-owned businesses, women and children worked as crew members.
Once a bricklayer’s client had purchased bricks and transported them to the site where they were to be used, the bricklayer moved there and stayed until the job was done.  Some bricks were made on the site of construction, but it required a supply of clay and a bricklayer who was also a brick-maker.  (The bricks for Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Monticello’ were made on site.)
    The client used his employees or slaves to do the unskilled work of assisting the bricklayer, or hired men from the local area.  Again, women and children were used in this, from time to time.  The bricklayer made the mortar that held the bricks together, using lime, sand, and water.  The mortar couldn’t be allowed to freeze or to dry too quickly in hot weather, as that would weaken the adhesion and might lead to a wall’s collapse.
Tools used by a colonial brick-maker were simple carpentry tools.  He had to make the molds in which the bricks were first set to dry.  He cut the wood with a saw and used a hammer and pegs (few nails) to hold the pieces together.  He needed a table for his work, sheds for drying and storage, even tarps to shield the bricks from moisture and excessive heat.  He used a shovel to move sand and a wagon or cart to move bricks from place to place.  His kilns required shovels and tongs, and heavy gloves and a leather apron.
In 1685, the colonials in Pennsylvania were French, Dutch, Germans, Swedes, Danes, Finns, Scotch, Irish and English, all of whom knew about bricks.  Once a supply of clay had been found, of course they built brick homes.  Sixty years later, Peter Kalm noted that there were many brick kilns in Germantown Pennsylvania, as well as Philadelphia.  
    The Old Corner Bookstore, reputedly the first brick building in Boston, was constructed in 1718.


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