Why Our Bricks Have No Frogs

Bricks
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.

brick-frog

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).
embossed-brand

(Image courtesy of brickcollecting.com)

recessed-brand

(Image courtesy of brick collecting.com)

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.
brick-beach

Bricks from an old brickyard in Kingston, NY lining the western bank of the Hudson (Image courtesy of brick collecting.com)

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?
reclaimed-brick-dc

All these beautiful bricks, but not a frog in sight

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.

brick-map

In this map of the same area from 1906, you can see “Baltimore Brick Co.” scrawled over the entire area.

1906-brick-map

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.
baltimore-reclaimed-bricks

Frog-less Baltimore bricks, undoubtedly made by the Baltimore Brick Company

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.
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The Pavers of Baltimore, Part 2

Baltimore Lore, Bricks
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.
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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-eurekamine

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.

windber paver.jpg

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.

Better Know A Brick: Part 5- Face Vs. Common

Anatomy of A Rowhouse, Bricks, Reclaimed Bricks
A brick is a brick is a brick. Or is it? Here we must take issue with this hasty Gertrude Stein-ism and declare that there is a massive amount of variety in what most might consider to be just another pile of bricks.
It’s no secret that bricks vary from region to region (thanks to differing clays, sizing standards, and traditions of either using, or not using, a frog) but even among bricks laid in the very same house, there is quite a diverse mix on display.
face brick vs common brick

Cutaway of a corner rowhouse showing three types of brick: face brick up front with a thin layer of white lime-Portland mixed mortar, common brick directly behind it with sloppy mortar work, and ‘hard’ brick for the side wall.

Before delving too deep into the nuances of kiln placement and firing temperature (saved for a future post), let’s begin with apples and oranges, the face bricks and common bricks.
Common bricks make up the vast majority of the Baltimore rowhouse. While there are various types of common bricks used to create the party walls, rear wall, and interior wythe of the front wall, they are all essentially the same brick with the same dimensions and basic properties. These bricks can be crude affairs: sizes can vary by a 1/4″ from brick to brick and corners are often imperfect.
Common Brick Side 2

This group of common bricks, (post-salvage and dry stacked without mortar) shows their irregular nature. Some chips and cracks occur during the salvage process, but these bricks were born imperfect.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, common bricks, in Baltimore and elsewhere, were almost always made relatively close to the construction site, probably within a span of a couple miles. Before widespread use of the automobile, these bricks would have been carted by mule, so proximity was key. Once they arrived on site, they’d be laid rather quickly in thick mortar beds.
Why the thick beds? Pardon the following SAT question: Gustav the bricklayer is making a wall. Bricks cost 5 cents apiece, and mortar costs virtually nothing. He can use either 1/16″ or 1/2″ mortar beds: which will allow him to use the least amount of bricks, thereby saving a ton of money?
brick thick mortar bed

Common bricks in situ, showing super fat and sloppy mortar beds.

Beyond decreasing material needs, thick beds enabled the mortar to set consistently around the rough edges of the common brick, allowing for straight courses.
Now let’s move on to face brick, a different beast altogether. Face brick is used on the…face of our rowhouses. These bricks are harder, more standardized, and more durable than your garden variety common brick. Whereas common bricks were often made from clay that had received minimal screening, face bricks were composed of finer clays that were less contaminated with pebbles and other impurities. They were fired at higher temperatures for longer, making them extremely solid and near weatherproof. Check out some examples in the gallery below:
The crisp edges of face brick meant that thinner mortar beds could be used to beautiful effect. Around the turn of the century, face brick were often laid in a thin stripe of a lime-Portland cement mix.
During the 19th century, Baltimore became famous for its pressed face brick and shipped the beautiful product up and down the East coast. By 1910, however, trade winds had changed, and the city that had once been a foremost producer of face brick became a major importer of it, as train cars full of face brick from Western Pennsylvania and Ohio flooded Baltimore. As new rows popped up along the city’s eastern and western peripheries, the houses were fronted with the telltale yellows and browns of PA and OH bricks. These bricks are nearly indestructible- if you see a Formstoned house on one of these rows, you’re witnessing the work of a damn good salesman.
iron spot row

Row of homes in East Baltimore with iconic iron-spot face brick

Find of the Day

Bricks
Documenting an ongoing project through a blog is often an exercise in pacing: there can only be so many breathtaking, white-knuckled, big-reveal wowza posts, so a reliable bench of less revelatory material is necessary.
In ordinary circumstances, our last post on brick fingerprints would serve as the “gee, cool!” post. Some less thrilling content might follow in the days to come, while we held on to the next crowd-pleasing post for a later date.
These are not ordinary circumstances. Today is June 22nd, 2015. Presented without further comment is something we found on site today:

june22 brick

Eager Street Recap: By The Numbers

Bricks, Deconstruction, Reclaimed Bricks, Reclaimed Wood, Salvage
Things are winding down on Eager Street (stay tuned for more info on the latest block we’re deconstructing!) so we thought it’d be a nice time to go through some numbers. Fear not, arithmophobes, though the following numbers are staggering, no math is involved.

Number of houses deconstructed:

35houses

Number of bricks salvaged:

BRICKS

Number of square feet of flooring salvaged:

FLOORING

Number of board feet of lumber salvaged:

BOARDFEET

Number of nails pulled:

NAILS

Landfill diversion rate:

95diversion rate

Number of tons of salvaged material:

salvagetons

Number of jobs created for BALTIMORE residents:

JOBSCREATED

All good numbers and all good news. The better news is that all of these numbers are going to increase with every project we take on: more houses, more bricks, more jobs, more of an impact in our beautiful, charming, working city.

New Series: The Pavers of Baltimore

Bricks
In our last BKAB, we talked about how the brick frog served as the canvas for early attempts at marketing and branding; brickmakers would mold their bricks to feature a last name, initials, or even a brand name. We then noted that the bricks on Eager Street lack both frogs and any identifying marks, and teased you with a promise that we’d explain why.
This post is not the fulfillment of that promise, but it does have to do with brick branding. Or rather, it has to do with block branding.
These men take a break from laying paving blocks. (Image courtesy of http://www.vintag.es)

These men take a break from laying paving blocks. (Image courtesy of http://www.vintag.es)

Blocks, also called pavers, are used to pave streets, and are essentially large bricks that are fired higher and longer in order to make them stronger. Blocks were often made from clays with high mineral content, which made the finished product exceptionally durable. Blocks weigh about twice as much as common bricks, a product of greater dimensions, but also greater density.
Cities didn’t start using asphalt as a common paving surface until the 1920s- before then, road paving was largely done with blocks, and these rock-hard relics of another era, many of them in the same condition as when they were laid, can be found in most any old city under layers of new paving material.
ny paving blocks

Laying block along 28th Street in New York City

Walking the streets of Baltimore, you may have seen our fair city’s most notable contribution to the block world, the famous “Baltimore Block” made by the Westport Paving Company- we’ll dedicate a post in this series to that block at some point. The city is chock full of these Baltimore Blocks, but you’ll also notice dozens of other varieties from surrounding states, begging the question: if common brick manufacture was largely a localized industry, why was Baltimore shipping in pavers from other parts of the country?

baltimore block

The answer seems to be one of specialized supply meeting overwhelming demand. Block manufacture required better kilns, specific types of clay, access to rail, and greater capital. While it was relatively simple for Joe Brickmaker to set up a yard and cart his brick around town, Joe Blockmaker had much greater initial capital outlays, required specialized machinery and more skilled labor, and needed rail access to tap into the urban markets that went through pavers by the trainfull.
On Eager Street, we’ve come across several varieties of blocks, and we figured it’s high time to document them. First on the list, is the mighty Shawmut paver from Shawmut, PA.

Shawmut Paving Brick

On this block, you can see the raised letters as well as the raised lug in each corner- these served to highlight the Shawmut brand, but also acted as built-in spacers, as the blocks were laid on their side and then filled in with a sand mixture.
Shawmut doesn’t seem to exist anymore as its own incorporated municipality, but you can find it on a map as a dozen or so buildings clustered around Mead Run, about an hour north of Punxsutawney near the Allegheny National Forest. Shawmut was never a large city, but it had excellent rail access and was well positioned geographically to supply to Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Baltimore markets.
shawmut ad

(Image courtesy of brickfrog.wordpress)

The Shawmut Vitrified Paving Brick Works was the business of Alfred Yates, an Englishman who began his career as a brickmaker in Boston before inventing his own kiln and expanding into the more specialized paving brick industry.
Shawmut blocks were priced around $2.78 per square yard of material.

You Still, Still Don’t Need to Take Our Word For It

Bricks
In this third installment of our informal series of long-dead writers praising Baltimore bricks, we now turn our attention to the work of John Thomas Scharf.

J-Thomas-Scharf

Scharf was a native Baltimorean who had successful careers as a lawyer, politician, author and historian. As a staunchly Pro-Confederate (read: pro-slavery) historian, Scharf’s writing has received warranted criticism for lacking objectivity and for espousing bigoted ideals that have landed so convincingly on the wrong side of history. His methods, however, have been praised as being exhaustive and meticulous, and his histories are still seen as belonging to the finest category of primary source material from his era.
Here’s Scharf on Baltimore bricks, from his 1881 History of Baltimore City, From the Earliest Period to The Present Day:
“The Baltimore press brick is almost as well known as the Chesapeake oyster, and as an article of export was antecedent to the bivalve.”
reclaimed brick pallet

This stack of bricks represent .00000241% of the bricks produced in 1881.

He goes on to say that current (1881) production of bricks in the city was around 100,000,000 per year. Just 99,895,000 more bricks and we can reclaim a year’s worth of production!

Better Know A Brick: Part 4

Bricks
It’s time to talk brick frogs.
brick frog
A frog is an indentation in the bed of a brick. We’ll get to the utility of this indentation in a second, but first a word on etymological origin.
Some folks think that the term came into being because brickmakers thought the bumps in the mold used to make such indentations looked like crouching frogs.
See the frogs? (I'm not sure I do)

See the frogs? (I’m not sure I do)

Other folks note that the word “frog” also refers to the soft cleft area of a horse’s hoof. Even among this horse hoof camp, however, there is division, because some argue that the brick frog takes its name from the cleft itself, while others maintain that the brick frog takes its name from the small clumps of mud produced by the horse hoof frog.

horse hoof frog

A third contingent points out that the wooden bump in old brick molds was called a “kicker” because it kicked out clay towards the edges of the mold. It’s not clear which influenced which, but somewhere along the way the English word “kicker” became confused with the Dutch word “kikker”, which translates to frog.
Etymological pedigree aside, the brick frog evolved from a utilitarian innovation into what some consider to be the canvas for early attempts at logo design and product branding. Let’s discuss!
Brick frogs make sense for several reasons: for one, creating an indentation in the brick saved the brickmaker material. In other words, by creating a small recess in the brick, the brickmaker could make more bricks with the same amount of clay without sacrificing the size or quality of the finished product. It also reduced the drying and firing time of the bricks.
double brick frog

This is an example of what we might call a double frog- the initial rectangular frog surrounding the “WBC” letters has been excavated to create two deeper frogs. This was likely an attempt by the brickmaker to save material.

Frogs were also friends of the bricklayer. The recess made the bricks lighter and easier to grasp. Frogs also created a key for mortar, resulting in a stronger bond.
Beyond these functional advantages, frogs offered an additional perk. As George Hutton described in his essential book The Great Hudson River Brick Industry, “The frog…provided a splendid means for the manufacturer to mold the company’s ‘brand’ (usually the maker’s initials or last name) into the face of each and every brick. Thus was born one of the first uses of manufacturers’ logos on mass-produced products.”
haggerty brick
In the brick above, made by the perfectly-named-brickmaker John Strong Haggerty, you can see how prominently the brickmaker’s name was displayed in the frog. If you were to go to a construction site today, you’d likely see “Pella” stickers on the new windows, “Tyvek” on the house wrap, and “Hardiebacker” on every board of…well, Hardiebacker. The brick frog served the same purpose, broadcasting the source of the building material for all to see.
“But wait!” screams the careful follower of BBxB! “The bricks on Eager Street have no frogs!”
A mountain of bricks and not a frog in sight.

A mountain of bricks and not a frog in sight.

This is correct. Our bricks are frogless, and we suspect there is a reason for this, a reason that we’ll discuss in our fifth installment of Better Know a Brick.

Friday Finds: Needle In a Haystack Edition

Bricks, Friday Finds
This is the Friday Find to end all Friday Finds.
The title of this post is a misnomer: “needle in a haystack” is generally used to describe the near futility of finding a sought after item hidden among a mess of other non-sought after stuff. A more apt description of today’s Friday Find would be a needle in a galaxy of haystacks, and it comes to us via the incredibly sharp eye of Ms. Bernadette.

IMG_0570

We clean a lot of bricks on Eager Street. In fact, we’ve palletized north of 100,000 of them so far. All told, the 35 houses on the 2400 block of Eager Street contain well over half a million bricks. If you lined up half a million bricks end to end, you’d have a row that would stretch from Baltimore to Wilmington, DE. In a sea of anonymous bricks, what are the chances that Bernadette would spot the jewel below?
IMG_0007
If you can’t quite make out the writing on the brick above, you’re looking at the handiwork of one James Walker, who scrawled his name, the date (June 21st, 1906 A.D.) and his hometown (Highlandtown, MD) on the bed of the brick. Bernadette tells me she was stacking bricks when this brick caught her eye for some reason. The odds of her finding this among the half million others are beyond miniscule.
James A. Walker was born in Indiana in 1872 to Irish parents. He moved to the Baltimore area shortly thereafter, where he took up work as a bricklayer. By 1910, he lived at 3207 Canton Ave (now Fleet Street) with his wife, Mary, and his three children. Elmer, his 15 year-old son, worked as a pipefitter’s apprentice, and his 13 year-old daughter, Gertrude, worked as a helper at a can factory.
James Walker's house at 3207 Fleet St. (Not James Walker's car)

James Walker’s house at 3207 Fleet St. (Not James Walker’s car)

By the time the 1920 census was taken, Highlandtown had become incorporated into Baltimore (just one year earlier) and James had moved on from brick setting to carpentry, an occupation he would keep until his retirement two decades later.
It’s tempting to say that James’ message is analogous to a modern “James Wuz Here” tag, but James likely never meant for anyone to see this brick. He would have scratched his words into the brick before it was fired, probably just after it was molded, the clay still wet. The wet clay then would have been sent to the kiln, where James’ words became baked into the brick itself, achieving a longevity uncommon for what was likely no more than an act of boredom. The fired brick then would have been sent off to be laid in a nearby house; maybe the bricklayer saw James’ message, maybe not. Regardless, with a quick flick of the bricklayer’s wrist, a smear of mortar should have covered the words for all time.
IMG_0009
Did James Walker, the brick setter, imagine the lives of the bricks he molded? Did he assume that the bricks he made, durable as any contemporary building material, would serve stoically in Baltimore rowhouses for centuries? Or maybe he was a realist, and imagined that one day his bricks would be pulverized by a wrecking ball or steam shovel. One thing is for certain: James surely did not envision that 109 years after he scratched his message, a crew of fellow Baltimoreans would be taking apart a block of rowhouses, brick by brick, and come across his scrawl.

Update: Our Bricks Find A Home

Bricks
loadedbricks

You’re looking at 9,360 Baltimore bricks on their way to new homes

The bricks that we’ve harvested from the houses on Eager Street were made 108 years ago. They’re tough bricks; no salmon bricks here, as the quality and durability of the bricks seems consistent across the foundation, the party walls, and both the front and rear walls. The bricks range in color, from a dark purple that we’ve started calling “pomegranate seed” to a lighter red that we’ll call “melon” (in keeping with the fruit theme). These bricks were made by man in concert with machine, and as such, bear imperfections and subtle differences in size and shape that ensure that no two bricks are identical. We think our bricks are pretty special.
IMG_0537
We’re happy to report that we’re not the only ones. Stone Farm is a nationwide resource for reclaimed stone and brick, and as fellow brick enthusiasts, they recognized that we had something special over on Eager Street.
Stone Farm will be cutting our beautiful bricks into Reclaimed Thin Brick Veneers, which means that pieces of Eager Street will be sent to homes, bars, restaurants, and offices around the country. When our bricks were molded over one hundred years ago, it’s a safe bet that the folks at the Baltimore Brick Co. didn’t envision that their bricks would achieve second lives as the featured material in gorgeous interiors like the ones you see below.
In 1952, a Baltimore Magazine article about the city’s rich brick history quoted an earlier article that was already 125 years-old at press time:
“The clay in the neighborhood of Baltimore is so admirably adapted as to be the very best in the country; and this fact is sufficiently evident from the circumstance that the fronts of all the best houses in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and other large cities on the sea are built of Baltimore-made bricks”
We’re thrilled to see that this tradition of sending Baltimore bricks throughout the country will continue.
bricktruck

From Baltimore, with love