There is a lot of clay in the Mississippi Valley.
The rivers and streams that trickle into the Missouri River collide with the Mississippi, and hundreds of millions of years of sediment erosion deposit right underneath St. Louis. In the 19th century, clay was accessible, abundant, and everywhere. Clay is a naturally occurring material composed primarily of fine-grained minerals. When wet enough, it has almost doughy plasticity and will harden when dried or fired.
Our clay was used for everything from sewer pipes to furnaces, but mostly it was used to make bricks.
To turn clay into a brick, it has to be collected, tempered, shaped, and fired in a kiln. A kiln is made from the same clay as brick, so early St. Louis brickmakers could integrate production by setting up brick processing sites on location with clay mines.
Through the 1800s, St. Louis had a population boom composed largely of European immigrants and freed slaves, creating a steady labor supply and high demand for homes. Thus began the largest community-building project St. Louis has ever seen: local people turning local clay into bricks to build their own homes, churches, and businesses.
The tragic fire of 1849 destroyed most of the wood-built downtown but ultimately created the St. Louis brick industry. After the fire, brick construction was a necessity, and the already growing demand doubled. By the 1850s, St. Louis brick was an establishment with veins as deep in the ground as the clay.
In 1868, the game changed again with the founding of the Hydraulic Press Brick Company. Using a hydraulic press made it possible to produce harder, denser, stronger bricks faster and with less labor. There was resistance to this new technology, and critics claimed that machine-made brick was weaker and less aesthetically pleasing than handmade brick. Both of these claims were disproven by renowned engineer James Buchanan Eads.
After extensive tests on a variety of building materials, his team found that common brick could withstand a crushing pressure of only 65 tons. Pressed brick proved to be over twice as strong: 157 tons of pressure are required to crush a pressed brick. This conclusion led Eads to use Hydraulic Press brick (along with steel) in the construction of the first road and rail bridge to cross the Mississippi River. Cars still cross the Eads Bridge today.
With stronger brick, river transport, and growing railroad traffic, Hydraulic Press led St. Louis to become a national distributor of building brick. Red buildings from Chicago to New York are made of St. Louis clay. Without shipping costs, building with brick in St. Louis was so affordable that even the homes of common workers were built from it.
The beauty of brick is related to its inherent practicality: bricks stand for centuries, and age like fine wine.
Brick reflects elements of its environment, and its color changes through the years and even through the day. The cool pink of an Autumn sunrise infuses the city’s red-brick surface completely differently from the houses baking in the August afternoon sun. Another new palette is produced when the white powdery snow accumulates in the grooves between bricks. Brick wet with rain even has its own smell. As the seasons go by year after year, brick buildings are a developing portrait of St. Louis.
The city produced such a variety and extreme quantity of brick that its own unique architectural style emerged.
Skilled masons from Europe instituted bricklaying guilds, apprenticeships, and intense training to mold artists and craftsmen. Some especially talented bricklayers, known as “front men”, laid brick in beautiful mosaics on the facades of houses.
St. Louis is home to more creative brick designs than any city its age, and they are designs you can’t see anywhere else. More buildings in these city limits are listed on the national register of historic places than any other American city. The buildings where we live, that we work in, and that compose our skyline were built by their own residents from the dirt beneath their feet.