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.
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.
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?
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:
Note the crisp rectangular lines of this face brick from an 1890s block
Weathered face brick from a mid 19th century house in West Baltimore
Classic ironspot bricks from a 1920s rowhouse, no doubt shipped from Western PA or Ohio
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.
Row of homes in East Baltimore with iconic iron-spot face brick