Brick (derived according to some etymologists from the Teutonic bricke, a disk or plate; but more authoritatively, through the French brique, originally a "broken piece," applied especially to bread, and so to clay, from the Teutonic brikan, to break), a kind of artificial stone generally made of burnt clay, and largely used as a building material.
The art of making bricks dates from very early times, and was practised by all the civilized nations of antiquity. The earliest burnt bricks known are those found on the sites of the ancient cities of Babylonia, and it seems probable that the method of making strong and durable bricks, by burning blocks of dried clay, was discovered in this corner of Asia. We know at least that well-burnt bricks were made by the Babylonians more than 6000 years ago, and that they were extensively used in the time of Sargon of Akkad (c. 3800 B.C.). The site of the ancient city of Babylon is still marked by huge mounds of bricks, the ruins of its great walls, towers and palaces, although it has been the custom for centuries to carry away from these heaps the bricks required for the building of the modern towns in the surrounding country. The Babylonians and Assyrians attained to a high degree of proficiency in brickmaking, notably in the manufacture of bricks having a coating of coloured glaze or enamel, which they largely used for wall decoration.
The Chinese claim great antiquity for their clay industries, but it is not improbable that the knowledge of brickmaking travelled eastwards from Babylonia across the whole of Asia. It is believed that the art of making glazed bricks, so highly developed afterwards by the Chinese, found its way across Asia from the west, through Persia and northern India, to China. The great wall of China was constructed partly of brick, both burnt and unburnt; but this was built at a comparatively late period (c. 210 B.C.), and there is nothing to show that the Chinese had any knowledge of burnt bricks when the art flourished in Babylonia.
Brickmaking formed the chief occupation of the Israelites during their bondage in Egypt, but in this case the bricks were probably sun-dried only, and not burnt. These bricks were made of a mixture of clay and chopped straw or reeds, worked into a stiff paste with water. The clay was the river mud from the banks of the Nile, and as this had not sufficient cohesion in itself, the chopped straw (or reeds) was added as a binding material. The addition of such substances increases the plasticity of wet clay, especially if the mixture is allowed to stand for some days before use; so that the action of the chopped straw was twofold; a fact possibly known to the Egyptians. These sun-dried bricks, or "adobes," are still made, as of old, on the banks of the Nile by the following method: - A shallow pit or bed is prepared, into which are thrown the mud, chopped straw and water in suitable proportions, and the whole mass is tramped on until it is thoroughly mixed and of the proper consistence. This mixture is removed in lumps and shaped into bricks, in moulds or by hand, the bricks being simply sun-dried.
Pliny mentions that three kinds of bricks were made by the Greeks, but there is no indication that they were used to any great extent, and probably the walls of Athens on the side towards Mount Hymettus were the most important brick-structures in ancient Greece. The Romans became masters of the brickmaker's art, though they probably acquired much of their knowledge in the East, during their occupation of Egypt and Greece. In any case they revived and extended the manufacture of bricks about the beginning of the Christian era; exercising great care in the selection and preparation of their clay, and introducing the method of burning bricks in kilns. They carried their knowledge and their methods throughout western Europe, and there is abundant evidence that they made bricks extensively in Germany and in Britain.
Although brickmaking was thus introduced into Britain nearly 2000 years ago, the art seems to have been lost when the Romans withdrew from the country, and it is doubtful whether any burnt bricks were made in England from that time until the 13th century. Such bricks as were used during this long period were generally taken from the remains of Roman buildings, as at Colchester and St Albans Abbey. One of the earliest existing brick buildings, erected after the revival of brickmaking in England, is Little Wenham Hall, in Suffolk, built about A.D. 1210; but it was not until the 15th century that bricks came into general use again, and then only for important edifices. During the reign of Henry VIII. brickmaking was brought to great perfection, probably by workmen brought from Flanders, and the older portions of St James's Palace and Hampton Court Palace remain to testify to the skill then attained. In the 16th century bricks were increasingly used, but down to the Great Fire of London, in 1666, the smaller buildings, shops and dwelling-houses, were constructed of timber framework filled in with lath and plaster.
In the rebuilding of London after the fire, bricks were largely used, and from the end of the 17th century to the present day they have been almost exclusively used in all ordinary buildings throughout the country, except in those districts where building stone is plentiful and good brick-clay is not readily procurable. The bricks made in England before 1625 were of many sizes, there being no recognized standard; but in that year the sizes were regulated by statute, and the present standard size was adopted, viz. 9 x 4&FRAC12; x 3 in. In 1784 a tax was levied on bricks, which was not repealed until 1850. The tax averaged about 4s. 7d. per thousand on ordinary bricks, and special bricks were still more heavily taxed.
The first brick buildings in America were erected on Manhattan Island in the year 1633 by a governor of the Dutch West India Company. These bricks were made in Holland, where the industry had long reached great excellence; and for many years bricks were imported into America from Holland and from England. In America burnt bricks were first made at New Haven about 1650, and the manufacture slowly spread through the New England states; but for many years the home-made article was inferior to that imported from Europe.
The Dutch and the Germans were the great brickmakers of Europe during the middle ages, although the Italians, from the 14th to the 15th century, revived and developed the art of decorative brick-work or terra-cotta, and discovered the method of applying coloured enamels to these materials. Under the Della Robbias, in the 15th century, some of the finest work of this class that the world has seen was executed, but it can scarcely be included under brickwork.