We like to talk building materials here at BBBB, and we’ve regaled you with tales of joists and studs, bricks and belt courses, struts and cut nails. But we’ve yet to discuss one of the most iconic building materials Baltimore has ever known, the material John Waters called the “polyester of brick”: Formstone.
Formstone has achieved Kleenex-like name recognition, but the word is merely one brand name among a host of other stucco products such as Rostone, Perma-Stone, Fieldstone, and Tru-Stone.
Formstone was patented by Albert Knight, a native Baltimorean, in 1937, but a similar product had cropped up 8 years earlier in Columbus, Ohio. Knight’s patent, granted while he was with the Lasting Products Company, was for a “Process of Making Artificial Stone Wall Facings.”
The product was applied to building facades thusly: wire mesh was fastened to the facade of a building with small nails inserted into mortar joints. Successive coats of plaster were then applied until a desired thickness was reached. Formstone installers then got to work creating the distinctive stone-like appearance with molds, rollers (for texture) and implements for scoring the stucco to create faux mortar lines. The stuccoed facade was then often colored to suggest a wall made from several types of stone.
Formstone appealed to both form and function-minded folks. Advertisements touted the product as being a wonder-solution to the persistent problem of brick maintenance (we’ll explore this claim in Part 2 of this series). But the product also offered an instant transformation: a simple brick structure could quickly become an imposing stone-fronted masterpiece. As Charles Belfoure and Mary Ellen Hayward note in The Baltimore Rowhouse, Formstone salesmen did brisk business in neighborhoods in East Baltimore that were filled with Eastern European immigrants; the authors suggest that these folks may have been drawn to a product that recalled the stone buildings of the old country. Belfoure and Hayward share a quote from one satisfied customer:
“It looked like a shantytown when it was red brick. The man came and Formstoned it…made it look like Hollywood. That’s the God’s truth.”
Formstone (and similar products) can be found in cities up and down the East Coast, but it feels particularly Baltimorey. Some folks estimate that over 50% of the houses in the city are Formstoned.
On Eager Street, 27 of the 35 houses had Formstone on them. In the next chapter, we’ll explore why only 1/5 of Eager Streeters went without Formstone, and why they may have been the sensible ones!
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.
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.”
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!
Today brings a simple but sweet Friday Find, courtesy of beautiful 1950s packaging.
The McGill Manufacturing Company was established in 1910 by James McGill, a man of entrepreneurial spirit with a wide breadth of interests. Before becoming a nationwide specialist in bearings, McGill dabbled in venetian blinds, golf clubs, gold mining, laxatives, washing machines, gyroscopes, and cracker jack whistles.
The small ball-bearing box we found in one of our houses showcases the simple and elegant design of McGill’s mid-century packaging, as does the matchbook below.
The company still exists, sort of, though they’re a subsidiary of a division of a multinational.
If the title of this post led you to believe that you were in for a white-knuckled thrill-ride of lumber pricing fluctuations and market conditions in the year 1921, prepare to be disappointed.
It’s not that such an exploration wouldn’t be rewarding, it’s just that the title of this post is taken directly from an article in The New York Lumber Trade Journal from 1921, an article that is perhaps the greatest and most glaringly obvious feat of filling space in a publication.
The article somehow manages to literally say nothing about the lumber trade, but it might rightly be declared a master class on subjective constructions of reality:
“Baltimore, Feb 10: Opinions in regard to lumber trade conditions here vary with the experiences of individual members of the trade and with their temperaments. If a dealer of manufacturer happens to be of an optimistic disposition he will be able to see some good in the situation; but if, on the contrary, he is pessimistically inclined, the prospect will look to him very dubious and he will draw a decidedly discouraging picture of the prevailing state of affairs. This will account for the varying opinions elicited in response to inquiries from half a dozen or any other number of lumberman. There are those who have nothing good to say of the market and who declare that business remains almost at a standstill…On the other hand, some members of the trade manage to see the good here and there.”
Just flawless reporting: both sides explored with no sides taken, empathy for all, a far-reaching exploration of the human condition hidden within a seemingly mundane trade report.
As Edward J Burrell tells us in Elementary Building Construction and Drawing (1891):
“When common joists are used for spans of more than 9 or 10 feet, there is a want of stiffness, and a tendency for them to turn over sideways. This may be remedied by herringbone strutting.”
Herringbone struts are diagonal members, generally placed in an “X” configuration, that are fastened between joists. By tying one joist to its neighbor, herringbone struts firm up flooring systems. As Burrell alluded to, they also prevent joists from warping or twisting over time.
The joists in the houses on Eager Street stretch 12 feet from pocket to pocket. While this span pales in comparison to some of 16′ wide houses we see in the West side of town, builders nonetheless thought it prudent to include blocking between the joists.
Herringbone struts also made it easier to run pipes and lines because they could be run along the joists without having to drill through solid blocking. In the days of knob and tube electrical wiring, when joists were riddled with holes for wiring, herringbone struts made a lot of sense.
Herringbone struts required an extra degree of craftsmanship, as well. To fix the struts snugly, a beveled cut had to be made on each side of the piece- without the use of a fancy whiz-bang $600 compound miter saw, this was no small task. We’re glad Frank Novak’s crew made the effort, because 107 years after they were laid, our joists are straight as can be without a twist or warp in sight.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, there was a Reverend L. Heumann who made his money peddling healing ointments, elixirs and various cure-alls through widely distributed pamphlets. This week’s Friday Find is one such pamphlet:
The copy in the pamphlet tends towards panic-inducing sensationalism, and it’s quite hilarious when read with the benefit of 80 years of hindsight and medical progress. A few examples:
“Pain and disturbances warn us of imminent danger…Do not pass these warnings- heed them before costly disease overtakes you. No one knows when he will be struck down by pain and disease.”
On a page called “Information For Nervous People”, Mr. Denver Bloom wrote a testimonial about Rev. Heumann’s “wonderful nerve medicine”:
“It is actually the best medicine I ever took. I now feel like a new person. I doctored with three different doctors but neither of them seemed to hit the spot. Yes, my nerves are 100% better.”
There’s also a page about eczema, titled “Don’t Lose Your Charm” with a photo of a young lad whose pocked face indicates that he has clearly lost his charm.
“When the skin is diseased or hurt, the germs have a broken-down gate through which they pour into the helpless system…Eczema makes its victim truly unfortunate.”
On the last page, Rev. Heumann claimed that he’d received over 7,000,000 requests for pamphlets- if this claim is to be believed (read: this claim should NOT be believed), one out of every 17 people in the United States requested one of his pamphlets.