A Love of Bricks

Driving to Providence, Rhode Island the other day, I was shocked to see that the old woolen mill in Dayville is collapsing in on itself.  This area of Connecticut once hummed with huge brick or stone mills powered by the abundant fast moving rivers that rush between our hills towards Long Island Sound. Today, these old mills stand idle or have been creatively re-purposed. The looms are silent. The trains no longer stop.

They are massive structures, often added to over the years, covering acres of land. I cannot guess how many bricks, brick makers or bricklayers it took to build them.

It is tempting to romanticize these pretty old mills, but those who toiled at the machinery inside them worked long, hard hours. Many of the mills, including the mill that was collapsing in Dayville (known first as the Sayles and later the Prym Mill) contaminated the soil and water. Toxins continue to poison decades after the mills closed.

Apparently the roof failed in the spring of 2010. Now the brick walls are disintegrating from the top down, leaving a heap of bricks along the foundation. Bricks even fill a landing on an old fire escape. I love bricks and could not help but wonder what will become of them. It’s a good thing the place is surrounded with barriers and barbed wire, or I might have scooped up a few bricks and put them into the back of my truck. The building may go, but the bricks will be around for a very long time, hopefully not as landfill.

Early American brick making began with the colonists who found an abundance of clay. At first, a homebuilder would dig and mold the clay and fire the bricks close to his home building site but soon brick making centers developed with a brickyard or two on the outskirts of most cities and large towns.  In the early twentieth century, brickmaking was mechanized and then concentrated in the Midwest. Today, most of the bricks used in the US are made in Mexico.

People have been building with bricks since at least 5,000 BCE. For an in depth and exciting look at this extraordinary building unit made of our favorite material, read Brick: A World History by James W.P. Campbell. He takes us on a tour of ancient Babylon –  “It has been estimated that the ziggurat at Babylon contained some 36 million bricks.” – shows us the engineering feats of Rome’s bricklayers – the Romans standardized their brick sizes — and marvels at the magnificent stupas of the East – “Few sights in the world are more breathtaking than the sun rising over the ancient city of Pagan…The houses of the city that once covered the fertile plain were made of timber and have long since disappeared, but the temples, which were made of baked brick, remain…Today some 2,000 remain, together forming one of the largest collections of ancient brick monuments of the world.”

The book is beautifully illustrated with photos by Will Pryce, photos that will make you want to leave the studio at once and go see all the wonderful brick buildings  for yourself. Brick came out in November of 2003 but, thankfully, remains in print and is readily available.

For a shorter treatment of bricks, there’s Bricks and Brickmaking by Martin Hammond, focusing on British brickmaking history. Hammond collected old bricks, made wood fired bricks and tiles himself – this is what happens to you if you are truly smitten — and belonged to British Brick Society. I wish I could have met him.