The History of Bricks

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Podcast Transcript

There is a good chance that every day, you encounter bricks. You might drive on them, walk on them, and live inside them, and you’ve probably never even given them a second thought. 

However, bricks, brickwork, and bricklaying are some of the constants that have existed throughout history. We used bricks for construction thousands of years ago, and we still use them today. 

Learn more about bricks and bricklaying and how it has changed over the centuries on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

If you had to pick a subject for an episode about everyday objects that you’d think would be incredibly boring, it is quite possible that some of you might have selected bricks. 

Bricks are….well….bricks. 

Yet, bricks are so ubiquitous that they have permeated our language. 

If people are stupid, we say they are as dumb as a brick or a few bricks short of a full load.

If we want someone to leave, we tell them to hit the bricks. If something takes patience and perseverance, we say we building something one brick at a time. However, if you are frustrated, you bang your head against a brick wall. 

If you receive news that leaves you stunned, you can say that it hit you like a ton of bricks. 

Whether or not you pay attention to them, simple bricks are a huge part of our culture. 

While I’m sure all of you would know a brick if you saw one, what exactly is a brick? 

The simplest definition is that a brick is a rectangular block made from clay or similar material, which is typically used in construction to build walls, buildings, roads,  and other structures by arranging the bricks in layers. 

It sounds extremely simple, and it is, but as we’ll see, there is a whole lot more to it. 

The very first evidence of bricks dates back about eleven thousand years to some of the very oldest human constructions. 

The first bricks were simple sun-dried mud bricks. 

Mud bricks are very simple and made out of mud with a binding material that was usually straw or some other agricultural byproduct. 

Mud isn’t a technical term. It’s just a slurry consisting of a hodge-podge of particular matter, which might include sand, silt, and clay, all of which are particles of different sizes. 

Mud bricks would be made by hand and then placed out in the sun to dry. 

The ancient city of Jericho, which dates back to 9000 BC, was constructed out of mud brick. 

Adobe, which is a construction material used in Mexico and the American Southwest, is just a form of mud brick. 

The Grand Mosque of Djenné in Mali is made out of mud brick, the current iteration of the structure having been built in 1907. 

Mud Bricks got the job done, but they were far from perfect. In most places, you could only make bricks during certain times of the year to ensure they were sun-dried. Likewise, binding materials such as husks and straw were not available year-round. 

Most importantly, the quality and consistency of the bricks weren’t great. Mud bricks were very porous; they could degrade quickly if you had a lot of rain, and there was a limit to how big you could build with them.

The next big innovation in bricks was the fired brick.

A fired brick differs from a mud-brick in that it doesn’t require any sort of organic binding component like straw, and the final product is heated in a kiln, not dried by the sun. Fired bricks were also usually made almost exclusively from clay, not just random mud. 

Fired bricks were a huge innovation. They were more consistent. They were more resilient, and they were stronger. Kiln-dried bricks also didn’t have cracks in them when they dried like mud bricks often did.

The first evidence of fired bricks appeared in China around 4500 BC, where fired bricks were used as flooring and later to pave roads.  The first fired bricks that were used in building construction appeared in the Indus Valley of what is today Pakistan around 3000 BC. 

Fired brick technology spread to Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, and Greece, where they were used for much of their construction. 

One of the major innovations in bricklaying was the development of mortar. Mortar is the substance that goes between bricks, which serves to even out the irregular gaps between bricks and serves as an adhesive between bricks. 

The first mortars were just mud and clay, often the exact same substance that was used in mud bricks. 

Later, mortars developed that used gypsum or lime, which served to cement the bricks together. These mortars are known as hydraulic mortars. The mortar would set by a chemical reaction, not just from the mortar drying. 

In ancient China, they didn’t actually use a true hydraulic mortar. They would use an organic rice paste as a mortar. 

The civilization that really advanced and spread brick technology was the Romans. 

The Romans were actually behind most civilizations all the way through the Republican period. During this entire time, Rome almost exclusively used mud bricks that were sun-dried. 

It wasn’t until the start of the Imperial period under Augustus that Rome began using fired bricks, using techniques largely taken from Greece. 

However, once the Romans adopted fired bricks, they really adopted it. 

Roman brick-making kilns could be found all over the empire. Roman legions would often bring portable kilns with them so they could make bricks for their camps. 

One of the things that piqued my interest in bricks was when I noticed how different Roman bricks were whenever I visited Roman ruins around the Mediterranean.

Roman bricks were much thinner than modern bricks and were usually wider and sometimes longer.  You can instantly tell a Roman brick when you see one, and Roman-style bricks are still used today in some buildings. 

Roman brickmakers developed a system of putting identification stamps on their bricks so you could tell who made them. Starting in the second century, stamps would often include the consuls for the year, which makes it very easy to date Roman bricks. 

Rome also developed several innovations surrounding bricks, the biggest of which was probably mortar. The Romans developed a mortar that was very similar to Roman concrete and used the same volcanic ash, known as pozzolana. 

Roman bricks were used everywhere around the empire and in almost every construction project. They brought a uniform system of brickwork and brickmaking to areas throughout the empire.

When the empire fell, brickmaking went into decline. Across most of the former empire, brick was replaced by stone. Stone is much more durable than brick but much more difficult to work with as each stone has to be quarried and cut by hand. 

Bricks and bricklaying, however, never completely died out. It was mostly used for smaller structures, whereas stone was used for larger projects such as castles and cathedrals. 

It wasn’t until the 14th and 15th centuries that an event known as the Brick Renaissance took place. Brick-making and brick construction took off, particularly in Nothern Europe and cities of the Hanseatic League. 

Brick allowed for buildings to be built quickly and more cheaply than stone, which met the demands of the growing merchant class in Europe. Throughout the Renaissance, brick was the primary material for construction, and many builds from the period still exist today all throughout Europe.

The Industrial Revolution saw another significant change in brick technology. The rise of large factory buildings and warehouses saw an enormous demand for bricks and brick construction. 

The demand was met by the mechanization of brickmaking. 

Brickmaking had been done by hand ever since bricks were invented. Clay would have to be packed into a mold, put into a kiln, removed, and stacked all by hand. 

In the early 19th century, many steps in the brickmaking process were automated. 

In 1845, British inventor Henry Clayton began selling the first automatic brickmaking machine. The machine revolutionized brick-making, allowing for just a few men to make as many as 25,000 bricks per day. 

As automation decreased the cost of bricks, you saw bricks being used in ways they hadn’t been used before on roads. Traditionally, paved roads would use stones. With bricks being so cheap, it was possible to line entire streets with bricks to provide a smoother ride for carriages and carts. 

Perhaps more importantly, brick roads didn’t turn into pools of mud every time it rained. 

Over the United States, the country was growing rapidly, in particular its largest city, New York.

To meet the demand for bricks in New York, the area around the Hudson River, upstream from New York City, became the largest brick-producing region in the world. There were over 130 brickyards that were collectively producing over one billion bricks annually by the end of the 19th century. 

Throughout the 19th century, bricks weren’t just dominant, they were almost universal for building in cities. Wood construction wasn’t viable due to fire risks.

However, there was a limit to what brick construction could do. In 1891, the 16-story Monadnock Building was built in Chicago. It was and remains, the tallest load-bearing brick building ever constructed at 215 feet or 66 meters.

Just to build something of this height took specially designed extra thick walls. If brick buildings were to go any higher, the walls would have to keep getting thicker, and the amount of brick used would have to increase accordingly. 

The problem of height was eventually solved by using steel frameworks in buildings called skyscrapers. Many of the early skyscrapers used bricks on the exterior of the building, but it was only for ornament. The bricks were not bearing any of the load. 

The Chrysler Building in New York is the tallest brick building in the world with a steel framework at a height of  1,046 feet or 319 meters.

At the start of the 20th century, a new innovation in bricks appeared: the concrete masonry unit, aka the cinder block or the breeze block.

The cinder block was basically a large hollow brick that was made out of concrete. The blocks are laid down the same as brick and mortar. However, their hollow interior allowed for the inside to be later filled with cement to create a solid wall or with insulation. 

While the manufacture of bricks and concrete blocks has been mostly automated, the laying of bricks and blocks is still largely done by hand. 

Medieval and Renaissance bricklayers were often part of guilds, either of bricklayers or under the larger umbrella of masons. 

Today, becoming a bricklayer usually requires some classroom instruction at a trade school and then several years of apprenticeship under a master. 

If you think that bricklaying is just stacking bricks on top of each other, think again. 

How a brick is laid is extremely important. There are a multitude of different types of bricks. Each brick can be oriented in a different way. Perhaps most important is determining the overall layout of all the layers of bricks. This is known as a bond. 

If you have ever looked at a brick wall, you’ll notice that the bricks are staggered. That is the bond, and there are many different types of bonds. 

There is the English Bond, Dutch Bond, Flemish Bond, Scottish Bond, Sussex Bond, and many others. Those are just for load-bearing walls. 

For decorative walls, there are many more ways you can lay brick, including herringbone, basket weave, and pinwheel bonds. 

As of 2020, there were an estimated 1.9 Trillion units of bricks and concrete blocks produced every year around the world. 

There are avid brick collectors who collect bricks based on the stamp where they were manufactured and an International Brick Collector Association. 

There are also bricklaying competitions. The largest of which is the annual “Spec-Mix Bricklayer 500,” which is held annually in Las Vegas, Nevada. Contestants are judged on both speed and skill. 

Bricks are one of the few things that have been around for thousands of years, are still used today, and most probably will still be used centuries from now. 

In a very real sense, these dried blocks of clay served as the very foundation of buildings that made civilization.