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History of the Brick

Updated on May 26, 2010

Man has used brick for building purposes for thousands of years. Archaeological excavations have unearthed a brick that authorities dated as 9,000 to 10,000 years old; this brick was discovered at the site of an ancient settlement beneath the city of Jericho.

The earliest bricks, made in areas with warm climates, were simply placed in the sunlight for hardening. Sun-dried bricks, which were used extensively in ancient times, especially in Egypt, were made of clay mixed with straw. Early in civilization, bricks were baked by using a fuel; these bricks were made of clay mixed with straw to give them added strength during drying and baking in crude ovens.

The Bible contains the earliest written record of the production of bricks, which were made by the Israelites under their Egyptian taskmasters (Exodus 1:14; 5:4-19). The Bible also records that burnt brick was used in building the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). The Greek historian Herodotus, in the 5th century B.C., stated that burnt brick was used in building the wall of the city of Babylon.

In addition to the Egyptians, the ancient Assyrians, Chinese, and Romans also used brick. In China, brick was used to build several parts of the Great Wall, which dates from the 3rd century B.C.

Roman Brick. The Romans made wide use of sun-dried bricks and burnt bricks; they used sun-dried clay bricks until the time of Augustus (63 B.C. - 14 A.D.), but after that time they generally used bricks burnt in kilns. The Romans built walls, forts, and cultural centers of brick. Roman vaults were made of brick, and bricks were used in the arches and faces of their aqueducts. Two examples of Roman brick structures are the Herculaneum gate of Pompeii and the baths of Caracalla in Rome.

During the period of the Roman Empire, the Romans spread the art of brickmaking throughout Europe. In Britain, brickmaking was discontinued when Roman occupation ended in 410.

Decline and Revival of Brickmaking. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the kinds of brick used by Roman builders were no longer made, and the art of brickmaking nearly ended. Brick-making continued only in Italy and the Byzantine Empire. In the llth century, the use of brick spread from these lands to France. By the 13th century, the art of brickmaking had reached England and other parts of Europe.

In medieval times, bricks came into use because they were more readily available or easier to handle than stone. In the Low Countries and in Baltic regions where stone was relatively scarce, bricks were an important part of the medieval building style.

During the medieval period, the clay for making brick often was kneaded by workers using their bare feet. The clay was shaped into brick by pushing it into a wooden frame placed on a table, which was covered with sand or straw to prevent the clay from sticking. After surplus clay was wiped off with a stick, the brick was removed from the frame. In the 14th and 15th centuries, a brickyard at Hull, England, turned out about 100,000 bricks a year. For laying brick, the major tools of the bricklayer were a trowel, a brick cutter, and a level.

Remains of buildings show that the art of brickmaking in England was well advanced by the time of Henry VIII (1491-1547). After the great fire of London in 1666, the city was rebuilt with mainly brick structures.

Brick in the Americas. Adobe bricks (sundried bricks made of clay and straw) have been made for centuries in Central America, particularly in Mexico. Some Aztec adobe structures still stand; one is the Pyramid of the Sun, built by the Aztecs at Teotihuacan, Mexico, in the 15th century. It is made of adobe blocks and basalt.

In America, brick was used in Virginia as early as 1611. Brickmasons were on the first three ships that arrived in Jamestown in 1607.

In those days it was customary for brickmasons to make the bricks on the jobsite. It is known that bricks were exported from Virginia to Bermuda in 1621 in exchange for food and oil.

Modern Brick Production. Bricks were made by hand until about 1885. With the introduction of brickmaking machinery, the number of clays that could be made into brick was greatly increased and so was production capacity. Handmade brick was produced at rates ranging up to 36,000 bricks per week; by 1925 a brickmaking machine produced 12,000 bricks per day.

In the United States, the brick industry reached a peak of production in the early 1900's, when more than 10 billion bricks were produced annually. In later years, there was a significant decrease in their use; in 1939 less than 5 billion bricks were produced. Since then, production has climbed to about 10 billion bricks a year. Much of the resurgence of the brick industry in the United States, a major world producer, has been attributed to the vast home-building programs. About 60% of brick production is used in residential construction.

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