A Brief History of Bricks and Brickmaking

November 24th 2020

Picking up a brick today, your first thought is probably not 'who invented this?'

I don't know, maybe you're a particularly inquisitive person.

But the point is, brick is now so commonplace that it sort of feels like it's always been around.

It's part of the fabric of towns and cities around the world and as a building material isn't going anywhere.

So, where were they first used and when did we start using them?

We thought we'd answer these questions and give a brief history of the humble brick.

There's not enough space to cover every detail but just enough to give you some interesting facts and a good overview.

So, where to begin...?

The Oldest Bricks

Bricks have been around for a very long time. The earliest bricks that have been discovered are estimated to be from 7000 BC.

The bricks in question were uncovered around the ancient city of Jericho, in the south of modern-day Turkey.

These were likely made from mud clay, shaped into bricks and then sundried in the open air.

Bricks from a similar time frame - between 7000 and 3500 BC - have been discovered in other areas of the middle east and the Persian Gulf, around the Tigris region. Air dried, mudbrick houses have also been found in Pakistan and other areas of south Asia.

Ancient Egyptian ruins show that they also used sundried bricks using clay, mixed with straw.

A Lot Of Places Had Similar Ideas

Bricks didn't all originate from one place necessarily.

Bricks have been discovered popping up in many different locations around the world simultaneously.

And not just the mud brick kind. Fired bricks have been excavated in China that appear to have been made between around 4000 - 3000 BC.

On the other hand, the Aztec civilisations of central America, cut off from the rest of the world, were making and using sundried Adobe brick, also made with straw, in the 15^th^ century.

They used the bricks to build many of the Aztec pyramids which are still standing today.

The introduction of brick firing drastically increased the rate of production, allowing bricks to be made ahead of time and stored. It also meant they could be made and used all year round and in cooler climates.

The Roman Brick Empire

The Romans made good use of fired brick for everything from forts and cultural centres to simple arches, vaults and more.

With the creation of mobile kilns, they were able to spread brick production to the rest of the country and eventually across the empire.

Much of Europe's early brick buildings can be traced back to the Romans. When the empire fell, so did the production of brick. As a result, it retreated mostly back to Italy and the Byzantine empire.

However, in the 11^th^ and 12^th^ centuries it began to spread back into France and Germany. A style of architecture called Brick Gothic appeared in Germany, Poland and other Baltic and Scandinavian states.

This arose because of the lack of other natural building materials available in these areas. Although it gave way to other forms of architecture during the renaissance, the style did resurface in the late 19^th^ and early 20^th^ centuries, often for political and ideological reasons. As such it can be hard to distinguish original architecture from this resurgence.

In the renaissance and baroque periods, the look of exposed brick became less popular and brick exteriors were often covered with render and plaster.

But it came back in a big way in the early 19^th^ century with the boom of the industrial revolution and the creation of simple brick housing.

Upgrading Brick Manufacturing

In medieval times, bricks were made by workers kneading the clay and then placing it in wooden moulds. Excess clay was wiped off and the brick shaped clay was removed from the frame.

This was all done by hand and indeed bricks were still handmade until about 1885.

The industrial revolution changed everything, boosting production capacity and therefore decreasing the cost of manufacture and construction.

By the 1920's brick making machines could produce up to 12,000 bricks a day.

Brick buildings in America had been built as early as 1611 but in the 19^th^ Century the country saw a building boom which has basically never stopped.

Many of the early American skyscrapers of New York were built with brick. The Empire State Building was built with 10 million bricks!

What Does The Future Hold?

As industrialisation and urbanisation of cities continued other methods of building began to come in, particularly with the increase of cement-based building materials like concrete.

There was a financial and structural limit to how high brick buildings could go so bigger skyscrapers began to move away from using brick.

Since the 1960's brick production has essentially halved and is now mainly used to build housing.

It's worth noting that this decrease in production is partly down to bricks not being used for the load bearing part of a structure. Most new buildings have a steel or wooden frame and brick is used primarily for its aesthetic benefits.

However, brick is also seeing a stylistic revival in the building of modern smaller to medium sized office buildings. These won't necessarily use traditional bricklaying but at least the brick exterior is making a comeback.

If this brief overview of the history of bricks has inspired you to get started on your building project, take a look at our library of bricks.