Tuesday, March 16, 2010

English Brick and Limey Sailors

Settlement of the Americas by English colonists meant that new buildings had to be made in the New World. Bricks were brought to the colonies in the holds of ships, used as ballast.

At the end of the seventeenth century, lime was used as a mortar for brick construction. Lime does not harden rapidly like portland cement; it hardens slowly as CO2 is absorbed from the atmosphere. Cement which will harden rapidly is known as hydraulic cement. (The development of hydraulic cement is an interesting chapter, the subject of tomorrow's blog.)

By the eighteenth century American brickmaking had come into its own. Colonial Williamsburg has an excellent program where the early brickworks have been reproduced, showing visitors how these early American bricks were made.

Brick laying methods, techniques and terminology were adopted directly from European masonry practice, and many of these terms are still used in American masonry today. For example, a brick "soldier course" refers to bricks laid vertically with the narrow edge facing outward; a brick "sailor course" refers to bricks laid vertically with the wide edge facing outward.

English sailors ate lime to prevent scurvy, becoming known as "limeys." English brick laid as sailor courses with early (lime) mortar were also limey sailors!

Several different techniques of laying courses (rows) of bricks are used by masons. The thickness of a masonry wall is determined by the layers of bricks, or "wythes." The different patterns created by the stacking arrangements of bricks all have different names for the types of bonds created. Flemish bond, stretcher bond, English bond, Header bond, Rat-trap bond, Herringbone bond and Basket bond are all examples of brick patterns found in early American homes and still in use by masons today.

Brick laying is a rich field of history, and many of these early structures still survive today. This is a subject we'll be coming back to in future blogs. The development of the American brick industry is practically its own subject which we'll be taking a long look at.


  1. Informative history connections... having fun browsing your blog.

    Clarification to above paragraph: vitamin C saving sailors came from citrus fruit, not mortar. :-)

  2. lime is a citrus fruit, and lime is in mortar :)