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.