Bricking it - The History of Bricks

The building industry is one of the most interesting to work in and, here at Safety Fabrications, we’re always on the lookout for useful and informative information that will give our readers a wider knowledge of the sector.  We’ve recently published a series of blog posts about concrete, the most widely used building material on the planet.  Despite the fact that concrete is thought of as grey and boring, it’s been an interesting and sometimes funny subject to research and we’ve come across so many fascinating facts that it’s been enjoyable to find out more about concrete.  We’ve now decided to move on and take a closer look at another common building material – the brick and today we’re looking back at the history of the humble brick.

The earliest bricks of all were natural dried brick – formed from clay bearing earth and usually dried naturally by the sun.  The oldest man-made bricks that have been discovered are made from shaped mud and date to before 7500 BC in the upper Tigris region.  Bricks were in regular use in pre modern China from the 2nd millennium BC and by 3 thousand years ago were in large scale production during the Western Zhou dynasty around 3,000 years ago.  The kiln master was in charge of ensuring that the temperature inside the kiln stayed at a level that “caused the clay to shimmer with the colour of molten gold or silver”.  He also had to know when to quench the fires to produce a surface glaze on the bricks.  Labourers would carry out the less skilled tasks in the brick making process – mixing clay and water, driving oxen over the mix to produce a thick paste, then scooping it into standardised wooden frames to produce bricks that were 42 cm long, 20cm wide and 10 cm thick.  The surfaces of the bricks were then smoothed with a wire and the fronts and backs of each brick stamped to indicate where they came from and who made them.

Moving on to Europe, the early civilisations around the Mediterranean, including the Ancient Greeks and Romans, used fired bricks.  The Roman legions operated mobile kilns which enabled them to build large brick structures throughout the Roman Empire.  During the Early Middle Ages, the use of bricks for building spread to Northern Europe after being introduced from Italy and this led to the style of architecture known as Brick Gothic (similar to Gothic) in placed that did not enjoy a near enough supply of indigenous rock for building.  As time went on, the style evolved into Brick Renaissance, examples of which can be seen at Schwerin Castle and Wismar.

As the Industrial Revolution brought sweeping changes, the production of bricks increased significantly and this led to the rise of factory building in England.  Bricks were preferable to stone due to the speed of construction and the lower costs of production.  In London, in particular, red bricks were chosen to make building more visible in heavy fog.  The move towards a mechanised form of mass production (as opposed to hand moulding) took place during the first half of the 19th Century and the first brick making machine was patented by Henry Clayton of the Atlas Works in Middlesex in 1855. 

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a closer look at bricks – their uses and modern developments in bricks.  If you have any information about bricks you think we should be letting our readers know about, please email us and let us know.