Wednesday, May 22, 2024

New England Brick Co. workers of the 1930s mix clay in preparation for brickmaking. (Photo: History Cambridge)

The brick industry dominated the landscape of North Cambridge from the mid-19th through the mid-20th century, employing hundreds of residents and providing millions of bricks every season for use in the Cambridge area and well beyond. History Cambridge hosted a History Cafe program on May 8 with Josie Kuchta that explored the history of brickmaking in the city and its significance in the area’s economic and social development. Kuchta, a recent graduate of Wellesley College and a marketing assistant at Agency Landscape + Planning, presented an overview of her senior thesis, sharing a variety of locally made bricks and discussing her proposed model for a monument to the brick workers of Cambridge to be installed by the Jerry’s Pond site.

Kuchta is compiling her research into article form for a future column and History Cambridge’s online North Cambridge History Hub. But the local brick industry has long been a subject of interest, and this week we feature excerpts from a 1971 paper, “The Romance of Brick,” presented to the Cambridge Historical Society by G. Burton Long.

B​rick ​is something that has been with us for centuries. There is an old maxim that says, “familiarity breeds contempt,” and this might well be applied to brick, because it has been used as a building material throughout the ages and we are prone to accept it without regard to its antiquity or to its continued use or to the function it has played in the development of civilizations from the very first of recorded time.

The first recorded example of brickwork comes from the Egyptians. Brickwork has also been found in many excavations in Mesopotamia, especially in Ur. Those bricks were large, unburned units and later had the impression of the cartouche of the king on them, which reveals their ages. Some of the other outstanding examples of brickwork from antiquity were made by the Romans. From them comes a brick that bears their name even today. You have all seen it – approximately 12 inches long, an inch and a half thick and three and a half or four inches deep. They are the ones that conquered England and brought a new type of building, and today you have brick buildings in England that were built by the Romans. I believe that it was they who first glazed brick. You have all seen glazed brick; of course at first it was a very crude process, but you have to give them credit for it. Very peculiarly, no bricks were manufactured in Europe from the end of the fourth century to the middle of the 13th, and then a new trend set in.

In what is now the United States, the first bricks were made about the middle of the 17th century, but it was not until the latter half of the 19th century that we really manufactured sufficient brick to take care of the needs of the area. This was all done through the invention of machinery by the English. The first brick kiln was probably built in Salem in 1629. You’ve all heard the story and it is easily proved that they had small brickyards on what is now the Boston Common. By 1776 there were a good many houses in Boston that are still there today that were in some measure built of brick. Most of these bricks were brought over from England as ballast in the ships, and it was not until much later that there was sufficient manufacture here to take care of the local needs. 

A Nebco worker of the 1930s lays out bricks to dry. (Photo: History Cambridge)

The oldest brick house in this vicinity is not in Cambridge, unfortunately, but in Medford – the Tufts house, built around 1676, sometimes called the Cradock house. But here in Cambridge you have Harvard’s Massachusetts Hall, built in 1720, gutted three times by fire and still being used today, which is quite a remarkable feat for a building.

Brick are made from clay or shale, and according to the consistency of the shale or clay the brick comes out yellow or shades thereof or red. It is a natural process, a natural coloring deposited by nature. The first bricks were put in some sort of a form; the clay was put in by hand and dumped in some way or other and dried by the sun. Surprisingly, right up to 1930 the New England Brick Co. made brick in that fashion, and just as surprisingly they had to be called Harvard water-struck brick for the water used in molds to prevent the brick from adhering to the side of the mold. If you used sand, you had a sand-struck brick. 

Originally, a sand-struck brick was turned out basically for inexpensive work and for the inside of a building, called backup brick; and the water-struck brick was used for a facing brick. Because of its use around 1890, a particular gate at Harvard College – the Johnston gate – was deemed by architects to be something quite unusual, and that began a series of activities here in this area for water-struck brick that today is still unbelievable. The bricks were manufactured almost as they were hundreds of years ago. You had a horse and a plow and you plowed the clay bed, then rolled over it with a harrow. You picked the clay up and put it in a “soaking pit,” mixed in a certain amount of sand and poured water on it so it got into a homogeneous mass. A man with a shovel came and stirred it up every now and again. That would sit for a week or 10 days.

Nebco workers of the 1930s stack dried bricks. (Photo: History Cambridge)

The next step made use of a machine, if you will flatter it with that title, that was like a big ice cream freezer with a beater inside. A horse walked that beater around in a circle all day long and the clay was exuded from the front of the machine, scooped up a handful at a time and put in brick molds that had been dipped in water. These molds were trotted out onto a flat bed of clay. They had false bottoms, which were moved to relieve the pressure and prevent the brick from sticking to them. The bricks were put there to dry by the sun. They were shaded with burlap or some similar material because if you had too much sun, the top of the brick would dry too quickly; you would have uneven shrinkage, and the brick would split open. In case of rain you had to run out and cover them with burlap again.

When they were dumped, the bricks were laid on what was called “the flat” for a sufficient length of time to be what you call “edged,” so the sides got the wind, the sun and the air. When they were further dried, they were put in “hacking sheds,” stacked far apart so the wind could blow through them. So you see, there was not much money spent on fuel for drying. These bricks were then put in “stove kilns,” built brick by brick, with tunnels left for putting the fire through. A shell of rejected brick was put on the outside and daubed over with clay and sand, making an oven. 

The Bay State Brick Co. came into existence May 2, 1863. In those days a capitalization of $300,000 was quite a deal, and contrasted strongly with the smaller yards that continued to be individually owned and operated, all trying to fight for the same jobs. Obviously in that whole area no one company could get it all, and so it was dog-eat-dog almost from the very start and Bay State Brick didn’t last long.

It transferred all its holdings to the New England Brick Co. on Oct. 31, 1900. This new company evidently had the avowed purpose of getting rid of the confusion of many small manufacturers. This company had a lot of familiar names, particularly well known to anyone acquainted with the contracting business. It was made up of 36 brickyards, all open yards with this original process of brick making. It operated in Maine, New Hampshire and New York as well, with the headquarters in Massachusetts and yards in the Cambridge area, in Somerville, Belmont, Arlington, Chelsea and Medford. The New England Brick Co. in its old form lasted until 1923.

Do you have a story or an artifact dealing with the Cambridge brick industry? History Cambridge welcomes these and other contributions to our upcoming community exhibit at our pop-up Neighborhood History Center at 2322 Massachusetts Ave., North Cambridge. The exhibit will take place Thursday to Sunday, and all are welcome. See our website for details, as well as contact information for those wishing to share an item for this temporary exhibit. Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date on this and all of our other events and programs.

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About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name and a new mission. We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We listen to our community and we live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone. Throughout 2023, we are focusing on the history of Cambridgeport. Make history with us at historycambridge.org.

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Beth Folsom is programs manager for History Cambridge.