brick redux

Over London by Rail, by Gustave DoreThe triumphant return of the brick:

Coade stone could only ever be used for incidental decorative purposes. Fortunately, there was one venerable building material that also stood up to pollution very well: brick. Pollution was the making of modern brick, though several other timely factors helped. The development of canals made it economical to ship bricks over considerable distances. The invention of the Hoffmann kiln (named for Friedrich Hoffmann, its German inventor) allowed bricks to be produced continuously, and thus more cheaply, along a sort of production line. The removal of the brick tax in 1850 reduced costs further still. The biggest spur of all was simply Britain’s phenomenal growth in the nineteenth century — the growth of cities, of industry, of people needing housing. In the lifetime of Queen Victoria, London’s population went from one million to nearly seven million, and newly industrialized cities like Manchester, Leeds, and Bradford had growth rates greater still. Overall, the number of houses in Britain quadrupled in the century, and the new housing stock overwhelmingly was of brick, as were most of the mills, chimneys, railway stations, sewers, schools, churches, offices, and other new infrastructure that leaped into being in that frantically busy age. Brick was too versatile and economical to resist. It became the default building material of the Industrial Revolution.

According to one estimate, more bricks were laid in Britain in the Victorian period than in all of previous history together. The growth of London meant the spread of suburbs of more or less identical brick houses — mile after mile of “dreary repetitious mediocrity,” in Disraeli’s bleak description. The Hoffmann kiln had much to answer for here, since it introduced absolute uniformity of size, color, and appearance to bricks. Buildings made of the new-style bricks had much less subtlety and character than buildings of earlier eras, but they were much cheaper, and there has hardly ever been a time in the conduct of human affairs when cheapness didn’t triumph.

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


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