thick as a brick

brickWhy was window glass so scarce in England? Taxes.

Why did bricks go out of fashion in England? Three guesses.

America played an indirect and unexpected role in brick’s falling fortunes. The loss of tax revenue from the American colonies after the American War of Independence, as well as the cost of paying for that war, meant that the British government urgently needed funds, and in 1784 it introduced a stiff brick tax. Manufacturers made bricks larger to reduce the impact of the tax, but these were so awkward to work with that the effect was to depress sales further. To counter this decline in revenue, the government raised the brick tax twice more, in 1794 and 1803. Brick went into a headlong retreat. Bricks were out of fashion and people couldn’t afford them anyway.

The problem was that a lot of the buildings already in existence were inescapably of brick. In Britain a simple expedient was to give the houses a kind of permanent facial by applying a creamy layer of stucco — a kind of exterior plaster compounded from lime, water, and cement, from the Old German stukki, or “covering” — over the original brick surface. As the stucco dried, lines could be neatly incised to make it look like blocks of stone. The Regency architect John Nash became especially associated with stucco, as a famous line of doggerel records:

But isn’t our Nash … a very great master?
He found us all brick and he leaves us all plaster!

Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life


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