To the reader unversed in brick terminology, the title of this post probably seems nonsensical, so we direct your attention to our primer on brick frogs before you go any further.
To briefly recap, frogs are indentations made in the bed of a brick that have the following practical advantages: 1) they reduced the amount of clay needed to make a brick, 2) they lightened the brick 3) they created a better key for the mortar to adhere to, 4) they offered a surface for the brick maker to impress his name upon, acting as an early canvas for advertising.
We are most concerned with this last item, the branding potential of a lowly brick. First a bit of history: brick frogs seem to date the late 17th century, but only came into use in the US during the late 19th century. The Hudson Valley region, which supplied most of the bricks to the voracious New York City building market, saw a progression of bricks featuring a brand on the surface of the brick (as seen below) to a recessed frog, to even deeper frogs (seen further below).
The recessed frog seems to have become popular (for Hudson Valley brickmakers and others) around the turn of the century. To supply the booming NYC market, hundreds of brickmakers lined both banks of the Hudson all the way past Albany, sending their bricks to the city by barge.
Here, you can imagine the branded frog playing an important role: amid the atmosphere of fierce competition in a booming industry, the frog allowed proud brickmakers to advertise their name and catch the eye of builders. Imagine you’re a bricklayer for a 20 story building, and you’re handling thousands of bricks a day, all of them marked with the name “MASSEY”. The name impressed upon the brick probably becomes impressed upon your mind, and when your current load runs out, who’re you gonna call?
In New York City, virtually every old building brick you come across will have one of several hundred brands on it. In Baltimore, brick hunting can be an exercise in frustration, because it seems there are hardly any bricks with frogs and/or names on them. Sure, you’ll see a “CALVERT” or a “HOMEWOOD” occasionally, maybe an “OXFORD” here or there, but that’s about it. During our deconstruction projects, we’ve handled well over one million bricks, and the tally of bricks with frogs stands at: zero. What gives?
What follows is only a guess, but a quasi-educated one. We’ve mentioned that frogs became popular during the late 19th century, so it pays to see what was going on in the Baltimore brick biz around then. Turns out something momentous was taking place:
In July of 1899, the Baltimore Brick Company was formed when it bought up almost all of the competing brickmakers in Baltimore, essentially becoming a monopoly in the Baltimore brick game. Along with several other smaller firms, the Baltimore Brick Co. absorbed these fine brick manufacturers: Baltimore High Grade Brick Co., A. & F. Wehr, Weaver & Harman, Maryland Brick Co., Pitcher & Creager Brick Co., Wm. H. Perot, Jas. R. Busey & Son, Smith & Schwartz Brick Co., H. W. Classen & Co., Cromwell Bros., John A. Knecht & Sons, Druid Brick Co., Dan’l Donnelly & Sons, John A. Allers & Son. In the map of East Baltimore below, from 1876, you can see the Donnelly, Smith, Robinson, and Perot brickyards.
In this map of the same area from 1906, you can see “Baltimore Brick Co.” scrawled over the entire area.
The formation of the Baltimore Brick Company is a prime example of industrial consolidation, as behemoths were created from the agglomeration of many humble enterprises. Three years after its formation, the Baltimore Brick Co was churning out 150,000,000 bricks per year.
To be sure, some venerable Baltimore firms resisted the lure of the mighty BBCo; Burns and Russell, whose bricks were used in the construction of the Shot Tower, Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Old St. Paul’s Church, remained in business, as did several specialty clay companies. But it’s fairly safe to say that any rowhouse built in the city after 1900 used common bricks supplied by the Baltimore Brick Company.
Which answers, partially, why we believe our bricks have no frogs. One of the main attractive features of the frog, the ability to promote a brand, would probably have been deemed unnecessary by the BBCo, as monopolies generally don’t need to advertise! This alone probably wouldn’t account for the lack of a frog in our Baltimore bricks, but it certainly seems like a plausible factor.
The Baltimore Brick Company, by the way, operated in the city until 1968. It’s tricky to pin down exactly, but it seems like parts of the company were eventually swallowed up by larger regional players, which were then themselves ultimately swallowed up by a massive multi-national brick company.
Of all the questions we get asked, perhaps the one most frequently posed is, “so, what do you guys do with all that stuff?” When you deconstruct a house, you’re left with a pile of materials that is essentially the same size as that house, if slightly consolidated. Our job doesn’t end when the house is fully deconstructed; we’ve still gotta figure out what to do with literally tons upon tons of salvaged building materials.
Fortunately for us, the materials we salvage are some of the nicest stuff on earth. Heart pine flooring, hand-molded brick, and rough-sawn lumber are hard to come by these days, and we’re thrilled that we get to lay our hands on such beautiful stuff.
Fortunately for you, there’s now a convenient outlet for these materials! That outlet is Brick + Board. When a century old Baltimore rowhouse reaches the end of the line, its bones deserve to live on, and we take pride in harvesting, preserving and preparing these materials for their next hundred years of life.
Etting Street is the first block that we’ve done on the west side of town, so we’ll be dealing with different housing typologies from older eras, different builders, and a different set of folks who lived in these houses.
We’ve been working on the 1800 block of Etting Street, which appears to have been built around 1890. Before we get into the folks who lived there, it’s worth remembering the man whom the street is named after (many thanks to this Baltimore Heritage profile for info!)
Solomon Etting was a Jewish merchant and politician who moved to Baltimore from York, PA in 1791. Etting was a prominent citizen of Baltimore, a successful businessman who eventually joined as one of the founders of the B&O Railroad. Even with his successes and high standing, Etting was banned from holding office because of his faith. He thrice petitioned to be placed upon the same footing as other citizens, and was thrice denied. When the Jew Bill (yes, it was actually called that) was passed in 1826, it enabled Jews to hold public office, making Maryland the last state to grant these rights. Etting, thirty-five years after he arrived in Baltimore, won a City Council seat and was one of the first Jews to hold elected office in Maryland.
Etting created the Etting Family Cemetery when his daughter, Rebecca, died in 1799. This plot is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Baltimore. Among the burials is that of Zalman Rehine, who is reputed to be the first rabbi to come to America.
Now let’s discuss some of the folks who lived on the 1800 block. In 1910, it appears that all of the families living on this block were either listed as being Black or “mulatto.” Thus far, all of the blocks we’ve worked on have been in East Baltimore, and were originally built to house arriving European immigrants. The 1800 block of Etting is the first block that we’ve worked on that was built to house African-American Baltimoreans.
The 1800 block of Etting lies within the Upton neighborhood, which was one of the most affluent African-American neighborhoods in the country at the turn of the century. While many of the city’s prominent African-American citizens owned property in Upton, it was by no means exclusively wealthy. “The Bottom” referred to the southern and western portions of Upton, and it was here that many in the black working class lived. The 1800 block of Etting was within this region. A quick look at the jobs of inhabitants of that block confirms this: waiter, cook, laundress, seamstress pop up again and again.
Priscilla Burnette was a cook who lived at 1807 Etting Street in 1900. Ms. Burnette was 40 years old, widowed, and lived with her daughters Minnie and Berthe and her son William. Ms. Burnette’s neighbors were also cooks, as was her daughter Minnie.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. The 1900 census lists another Priscilla Burnett (no final ‘e’ in this surname), 44 yrs old, also widowed, who is listed as being a live-in “servant” and a cook for Israel Rosenfield and family. The Rosenfields lived at 2221 Eutaw Place, a large three-story brownstone in Reservoir Hill, just half a mile from 1803 Etting. This Priscilla Burnett, however, is listed as being white.
The two Priscilla Burnett(e)s have nearly identical names, similar ages, identical jobs, are both widowed, and live within a half mile radius of one another. We’re left with a couple options here: either there really were two people with insanely parallel lives, or it’s the same Priscilla Burnette listed as living in both places.
I think the second option is far more likely. But if that’s the case, why would her race be listed as “black” for one address and “white” for the other? This could be a simple clerical error, it could be that Ms. Burnette could “pass” for white, or it could be that the Rosenfields’, for some reason, declared to the census-taker that their servant was white. The 1910 census does not show a Ms. Burnette at either address, and it reveals that a new family had moved into 1807 Etting Street.
Way back when, we highlighted one of the pavers that sits below our long-since-asphalted streets here in Baltimore. These pavers were used to pave streets before asphalt became commonplace in the 1920s.
We briefly discussed how a paver (also called a ‘block’) operation required more sophisticated machinery and infrastructure than your average brick operation. Because of this, Baltimore actually imported much of its stock of 10 lb pavers. Today we’ll look at another block that can be found under the streets of Baltimore.
The town of Windber, PA started as a company town for the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company (see what they did there?). The company brought over large amounts of Eastern European immigrants during the early years of the 20th century to work in the mines, and by 1910, the town that had formed only years earlier had a population of nearly 10,000.
Windber became a minor boomtown, with sawmills and brick manufacture joining coal mining as the main industrial activities. The W.P. Kelley Brick Co, which got off the ground in 1901, seems to have been behind the “Windber” paver brand.
Next to the “Windber” name, you can see the four ovular lugs that acted as natural spacers when these pavers were laid on their edge, as seen in the photo. You can also just make out smaller circular bumps in the top corners of the paver: these were caused by indented screws fixed to the face of the mold.
Over a year ago, we spotlighted the man who built the houses we deconstructed on Eager Street, Frank Novak. Legend has it that Novak built 7,000 rowhouses in East Baltimore, beginning in 1899 with the 700 block of Patterson Park, and moving north and east to help construct Baltimore’s rapidly developing suburbs.
Several months ago, we got an email from Elizabeth Day, Novak’s great-grand-niece (Novak was her father’s great uncle), who shared some family history with us. She told us that her father, James Scroggs, had come across the blog and had enjoyed reading about his great uncle’s role in shaping Baltimore. We sent James a brick from one of Novak’s houses, and he more than repaid us with the wonderful history that follows:
Frank wasn’t the only entrepreneurial Novak: in 1907 (the same year the houses on Eager Street were built), Frank’s older brother Joseph opened a saloon at 2308 E Madison Street. Joseph ran the saloon until Rudolph, a younger brother, took it over in 1913. Rudolph ran the joint until 1920, when Prohibition forced him to convert it into a soda/fountain. James recounts that, “my mother’s recollections of the place were of a friendly neighborhood gathering place, a kind of ethnic pub where her mother and aunt cooked up Czech delicacies.”
James’ mother was named Florence, and in the photo below you can see her with her cousin Mildred Raborg in front of Novak’s Saloon. The photo was taken in 1918.
James also sent along a photo of the same address nearly 80 years later:
Here’s what the intersection looks like today:
You can see that some of the original details remain: the ornamental brackets supporting the entryway are still there under several coats of paint, as are the marble slabs framing the entry landing.
James ended his email by noting that “Frank Novak seems to have been a very modest man. He deserves more credit.”
James also sent along Frank Novak’s obituary, which we’ll discuss in more detail in a later post.
If you’re a friend of this blog, you’ve heard us rave about the superior quality of Baltimore bricks and the incomparable beauty of 130 year-old lumber. You may have thought to yourself, “hooooooweee I’d like to get my hands on some of that!”
We’re happy to announce that now you can! Details Deconstruction is spinning out a new social enterprise focusing on the materials we salvage, the stories they tell, and the work we do to prepare these materials for their next lives.
Brick + Board will be marketplace for reclaimed bricks, lumber, flooring, architectural details and more, but it will also be a training program: using the bounty of raw material that we harvest in Baltimore and beyond, we’re excited to start training folks in basic carpentry, woodworking, and milling. Our plan is to bring skilled industrial work back into the heart of Baltimore.
The materials we salvage were milled, molded, and installed in Baltimore by Baltimoreans. Now, a century later, a new group of Baltimoreans is reclaiming these materials, brick by brick.
Check out our new Facebook page by clicking HERE!
During these wintry times, when the majesty of falling snow has given way to the dread of dealing with mounds of it, let us pause and recall that our aching backs and calloused hands are nothing new, that our forefathers and mothers had to shovel out their wagons, de-ice their single-pane windows, and plow, or rather roll, the streets with snow rollers.
Until 1862, when Milwaukee adopted the first snow plows, snow rollers would be used to compact the snow, making streets passable. These rollers actually made the streets more passable, as the compacted snow served as a perfect surface for ski and sled-mounted vehicles.
Besides the rollers, cities heavily relied on their citizenry (and occasionally their police forces) to remove the snow. Snow was a major physical obstacle, something that appeared somewhat regularly and had to be regulated as such.
In the Baltimore of 1858, this regulation came in the form of Ordinance No. 33, Sec. 31. The broad ordinance was designed to “restrain evil practices…and to remove nuisances.” Sec. 31 dealt with snow removal from footpaths, and mirrors modern regulations: essentially, folks were required to clear the footpaths that fronted their property within three hours of snow falling.
What’s odd is the placement of this Section: it comes directly after Sec. 30 (not the odd part) which deals with brick kiln regulations! One can imagine the drafters of the city ordinances creating their list of nuisances, and saying, “Heavens yes, we must certainly regulate the foul odours and displeasing smoke coming from those brick kilns. Hmmm, you know what else is equally as problematic? Snow!”
In the last Ghosts of Port Street, we featured Stephen Bohdal, a humble wireworker whose experience ultimately paid off when he created a patent for a “Combined Coat and Skirt Hanger.”
Bohdal lived at 900 N Port Street, and just next door, in 902, lived the Widra family. In 1910, the Widra family consisted of Peter, his wife Rose, and their three children, Rudolph, Charles, and Helen. Like his neighbor Bohdal, Peter was a wireworker. In fact, the two neighbors owned a wire works together at 717 E Fayette Street, appropriately named Widra and Bohdal.
It seems the neighbors eventually went their separate ways, as both Widra and Bohdal opened their own businesses. Peter Widra & Company Ornamental Wire Works specialized in elevator cars, lawn settees, and bank railings, among other things. They operated out of a factory at 516 Ensor Street.
By the time the 1920 Census was taken, Peter had died, and Rose was running the business. The family still lived at 902 N Port, though Rose’s mother, brother, and niece had moved in. Charles, who at 15 was the oldest Widra son, did not enter the family trade, and instead worked as a clerk at an insurance agent. In 1930, Charles had moved out to the suburbs where he worked as a press operator at an aircraft factory. By 1940, he had moved back home to East Baltimore, though he kept his work as an aircraft mechanic.
One imagines that the work of an aircraft mechanic must have been somewhat of a natural extension to the work of a wire worker. Maybe it was in Charles Widra’s blood? In looking at the earliest listing for the Widra family, the “d” in the name seems cut short, almost to the point that it looks like an “a”. The name seems to be written as “Wiara”. This could be the case, of course; perhaps the immigration official or census taker or whoever first wrote down the name “Wiara” wrote it in such a way that it looked like “Widra” and the new name just stuck. It is quite possible that the family’s original name was “Wiara”: in old German, it means “wire”.