From Cellar to Shingles: Early 19th-Century Building Trades
Author: Robert Cottrell (Formerly Collections Manager at Conner Prairie, Mr. Cottrell is now the Director of the Remick Country Doctor Museum and Farm in Tamworth, NH.) A version of this article previously appeared in Building a Home, Preserving a Heritage: the Story of the Conner House (1993)
We will probably never know the names of the men who built William Conner's home. However, using the physical evidence of their work, period records, and comparable examples, we can speculate on how the house was built. While less complicated than today's building industry, house construction in 1823 was probably more sophisticated than most people might imagine.
Actual practice did not fit a stereotypical view in which a pioneer family simply found a nice spot in the woods, chopped down some trees, gathered a few friends together, and held a "house raising." Building a house, especially of brick, required tools, knowledge and skills not possessed by everyone. Just as today, it was not economically or practically feasible for everyone to "build their own" house.
In his study of houses in southern Indiana, Warren Roberts argues that even a seemingly simple log building required a large number of tools that not everyone would have owned or known how to use well. To realize a return on their investment in training, tools, and stock of materials, craftsmen specialized in one or two building trades. Edward Hazen's 1837 Panorama of Professions, intended to instruct young boys in their careers, describes nine different building trades: architect, brickmaker, bricklayer, carpenter, glazier, joiner, painter, plasterer, and stone mason. Scott's 1826 Indiana Gazetteer records that four of these trades, bricklayer, carpenter, plasterer, and stone masons were represented in Indianapolis, then a town of about 800 inhabitants. Other necessary craftsmen such as brickmakers may have been itinerants. Three years before, when having his house built, William Conner may have had to hire some of his craftsmen from more established areas. In the relatively undeveloped area of central Indiana in 1823, some of the more closely allied trades which used some of the same materials, tools, and techniques may have been combined. For example, a bricklayer may have also done stone masonry for the foundation or a carpenter may have glazed the windows. However, other trades would have remained distinct. A bricklayer would not have made his own bricks. A carpenter would not have made his own nails.
The building trades listed by Hazen were supported by manufactories which produced necessary tools and supplies. While many of the materials for the house were obtained and processed locally, items such as glass, paint and hardware tied the Conner House into a world-wide mercantile network. Each industry producing these items was backed by huge capital investment, a highly specialized work force, ever increasing technological innovation, and an extensive marketing and transportation system.
In today's litigious society, reams of contracts and legal documents are required to build a house. In the early nineteenth century written agreements between the builder and owner were simple, informal affairs. In 1822, Indianapolis lawyer Calvin Fletcher recommended a one-page contract in which design specifications were summed up by saying that the house was to be built "in a good and workmanlike manner. " Accompanied by a simple list of overall dimensions and perhaps a crude sketch, the rest of the details were left to trust. However short, Fletcher's concerns indicate there was a perceived need to have a contract. A careful analysis of several other period contracts reveals the basic concerns beyond design specifications. Most of the contracts required the owner to obtain materials for the builder. They provided a basis for the work to be finished and the contractor to be paid in case of the death or disablement of either party through their "heirs, executors and administrators." The construction deadline was noted and it was common for payment to be made in three installments; at the beginning of work, half way through, and upon completion. Finally, a penal sum was to be applied if either party failed to carry out their part of the bargain with regard to "the true and faithful performance of the several articles and agreements above mentioned."
Today, a licensed professional is required to plan and direct construction. During the early nineteenth century, architects were just beginning to establish their dominance over the other building trades. While reporting that it was still common for a carpenter to serve as "master builder," Edward Hazen regretted, "that the professional architect has not been oftener employed; for had this been the case, a purer taste in building would have generally prevailed." He went on to argue that "Carpentry and joinery, as well as all other trades connected with building," should be subservient to the architect. With the simple style of the Conner house and the fact that there were likely few architects roaming the Indiana frontier, William Conner probably hired a carpenter as his master builder. In such cases, it was his business "to employ persons capable of executing every kind of work required on the proposed edifice, from the bricklayer and stone-mason to the painter and glazier."
The 1838 notebook of John Elder, a master builder from Indianapolis, provides a fascinating look into the details of subcontracting. Elder kept his expenses and receipts in a small notebook. For example, on July 6, 1838, Henry Stewart signed a note indicating he had received from Elder "forty dollars on acct of bill of brick & hauling." In a number of cases, the workmen were illiterate and signed with an x. Elder's notebook records payments made for shingles, carpentry work, hauling bricks, men to help with putting up a kiln, and even $5.50 on account of "digging privy."
Builders often used price books to regulate their estimates and bills. Price books were published by organized craft societies to help improve or stabilize rates. The 1836 publication of a price book for Indianapolis Carpenters was designed to "promote good understanding between employers and employed" and "prevent and adjust disputes." To enforce their published rates, the carpenters agreed that:
"No member of this Society shall subcontract work from any person who is not a Carpenter, Joiner or Bricklayer ... and following the business at time of taking said sub-contract. No member of the Society shall undertake work lower than the price fixed by the Society: and if any member shall undertake to do any work at a lower rate that the Society's adopted bill of prices, he shall be fined in any sum not exceeding ten dollars, and if he refuses to pay said fine, he shall be expelled from the Society and opposed in all his undertakings."
The Indianapolis price book included a detailed "bill of prices" for thirty-one categories of work including framing, sheeting, shingling, door frames, window frames, stairs, shelves, and cellar doors. The price breakdowns were very detailed. For example, cutting a hole in the seat for a necessary was 12 cents, 15 cents if it was to be done in the "best manner." Covers were an additional 50 cents. However, price books did not always protect the labor force. As master builder for the Frankfort, Indiana courthouse in 1837, John Elder was able to obtain the services of carpenter Charles P. Sheaff at "a deduction of Twenty five per cent" from the standard prices established for Indianapolis work. The discount was probably based on the fact that 1837 was a depression year combined with the distance from Indianapolis and the supply/demand of the market. Elder probably got by with paying less in the countryside.
The men who worked on William Conner's home would have learned their trade through an apprenticeship. Around the age of eight or nine, a young boy could be apprenticed to a master craftsman. The standard wording of the contract between the boy's father and the master bound the boy "to learn the art, trade, mystery or occupation" of the selected trade. In exchange for the boy's free labor for a specified number of years, the master provided room, board, and schooling in reading and arithmetic.
With the contracts written, the design chosen, and the workers assembled, the next step was to clear the site, lay out the plot, grade and level the ground, excavate the cellar, and establish the foundation. Nineteenth-century earth working tools were simple. Picks and shovels loosened the soil while baskets, wheelbarrows, and carts carried it away. While energy was supplied by unskilled day laborers the foundation and cellar had to be worked by a skilled stone mason or the entire building would suffer. One early writer explained that "if the Foundation should happen to dance, 'twill marr all the Mirth in the House." The stone was probably quarried nearby by laborers under the supervision of a stone mason.
It is believed that Conner's home was one of the first brick houses in the "New Purchase" area of central Indiana. As a result, Conner's choice of brick would have brought considerable prestige. There is evidence that the original bricks for the Conner House were made of local clay fired behind the house. Most bricks used in America before 1875 were handmade. Traditional brickmaking consisted of a few simple processes: finding good clay, mixing it with sand and water, molding it into shape, drying, and finally burning it. But while each part of the work seems simple, the quality of the final product required great skill and experience. To remain competitive, a brickmaker had to work fast and divide the work into parts. The team consisted of an apprentice or laborer to mix the clay, another to run the clay to the master craftsmen who shaped the brick in a wooden mold, and an "off bearer" who ran it out to the drying field. Early nineteenth-century sources noted that a four-man team working a 15 hour day produced around 2,000 bricks.
After drying the bricks in the sun to remove most of the moisture, they were stacked into a type of kiln called a "clamp" or "scove." To burn the bricks, fires were built up gradually and the heat was maintained at about 1800 degrees for several days. Throughout the interior of the kiln, open spaces were left between bricks to allow heat to circulate. After cooling, the kiln was taken apart and the bricks were sorted. While brickmakers attempted to insure uniformity, variations in size, color and strength occurred due to uneven heat and compositions of materials.
The mortar used to lay the bricks was probably also made on the site by mixing lime, sand, and clay with ox or cowhair. A mortar analysis from the Conner House revealed it was composed of 28.8% lime, 63.2% sand and 8% clay. The lime itself was probably made on site by burning local limestone or shells. Composed primarily of calcium carbonate, these items yield quick lime (calcium oxide) when heated. After cooling, the quick lime could be stored until ready for use. When needed, it was set in a vat or in a pit dug in the sand and water was added to slake it. For about five minutes there would seem to be no reaction. Then a bit of steam would rise from the mass and in ten minutes a chemical reaction would be going strong, making what looked like a volcano of boiling chalk. A tremendous amount of heat was released as the water took the place of carbon dioxide.
Writing in the seventeenth century and without the benefit of modern chemical terminology, Joseph Moxon captured the magic of the process when he noted that it seemed "the Fire in Lime burnt, Asswages not, but lies hid, so that it appears to be cold, but Water excites it again, whereby it Slacks and crumbles into fine Powder." After twenty minutes the pile of lime became an overflowing mound of pure white powder, hydrated lime (calcium hydroxide). With the mortar ready, the bricklayer was ready to start his work. Even in wooden houses, the bricklayer was in demand to build fireplaces and chimneys. By turning different faces of the brick to the outside the bricklayer could create a variety of bonding patterns which were strong and attractive. The two most popular patterns during the early nineteenth century were called "Flemish" bond and "Common" bond. The long side of the brick is called a "stretcher" and the short end known as a "header". The Common bond system, consists of alternating courses of stretchers and headers. In the Flemish bond stretchers and headers were alternated within each course. The front of the Conner House is laid in the more decorative Flemish bond, while the rest is laid in Common bond. Period sources indicate that while Flemish bond was considered more insecure because it created spaces that had to be filled with weaker half-bricks, it was preferred for its "superior beauty" and was thought to be "little inferior in appearance to marble itself."
The bricklayer's main tool was a trowel for spreading mortar and breaking bricks. Special hammers, axes, and saws were also used for cutting and shaping bricks. A level, plumb-rule, square, measuring rod, and compass were used to measure out the work. The bricklayer's main tool The bricklayer's helper used a hod to carry materials around the work site. Because they used similar tools, materials, and techniques, the early nineteenth-century bricklayer sometimes also did the work of the plasterer.
Carpenters played an important role in building a brick house. They often specialized at different types of work depending on the skill and tools involved. One carpenter might have hewn and joined large timbers for floor joists, rafters and studs. Another carpenter may have rived shingles for the roof. Another carpenter may have smoothed and fitted the floorboards tongue to groove. The finest work, requiring the most skill and sophisticated tools, was reserved for a joiner who made doors, window frames, interior molding, and stairways. Finally, a carpenter may have been employed to put up lath for the plaster.
The common use of plaster for ceilings and walls disproves the notion that nails were rare in historic buildings. Its true that the frame of a house was often secured with pegged joints (the roof rafters are secured this way in the Conner House), but only because it was a strong construction method. The plaster lath, made of small strips of wood, required at least one nail at each end to attach it to wall studs or ceiling joists. As a result, there were probably more nails in one room of a nineteenth-century house than in an entire modern home.
During the period most glass was imported from England and France. Window glass was produced from sand in two different forms, crown and cylinder. Crown glass employed an earlier method in which hot molten glass was blown into a large bubble and then opened and shaped into a flat disk. The disk was removed from the blowpipe, cooled and cut into rectangular panes. This type of glass was thick, had circular spin marks, and occasionally one piece would have a small thick puddle (the "crown" or "bull's" eye) where the blowpipe was attached. The cheaper and newer method involved blowing the glass into a large cylinder in which one end was cut off, the cylinder slit open, and the glass flattened into a sheet. The result was a much smoother product. Conner probably purchased the finer results of the cylinder method. The panes would have been pre-cut to standard sizes and installed by a glazier. Hazen reports that "Plain glazing is so simple, that no person need serve an apprenticeship to learn it; and there are but few who confine their attention to this business exclusively." He goes on to add that "It is commonly connected with some other [trade] of greater difficulty, such as that of the carpenter and joiner, or house painter; but with the latter more frequently than any other."
The putty for installing glass panes into a window sash would have been made on the site by mixing white lead and linseed oil to the proper consistency. The resulting putty became as hard as stone when it dried. If a window was broken, the hard putty could be softened and removed by applying a hot iron to it. While the putty was mixed on the site, white lead was manufactured in great quantities at chemical works. It was produced by hanging thin coiled sheets of lead in an earthen vessel filled at the bottom with strong vinegar. The vessels were then exposed to a gentle heat which gradually evaporated the vinegar. The resulting vapor combined with oxygen and converted the exposed surfaces into a carbonate of lead. The corrosion of one of these sheets took from three to six weeks, during which time the lead was repeatedly uncoiled and scraped to harvest the desired product. Linseed oil was manufactured by milling seeds from the flax plant, the same plant from which linen was made.
Linseed oil and white lead were also important ingredients in paint. Paint was usually purchased as dry pigment and mixed on site by the painter's apprentices. The pigments were made from a great variety of mineral, vegetable and animal products gathered from around the world. Popular paints of the period included Spanish brown, yellow ochre, chrome yellow, terra di sienna, lampblack, and verdigris.
A common misconception is that the local blacksmith would have made all of the hardware for an old house. Virtually all hardware used in this country until about 1825 was made in Great Britain. After that, American hinges, locks, nails, and other hardware were made produced in large manufactories and often shipped great distances.
The Conner house was the product of a variety of specialized craftsmen. Its bricks, mortar, plaster, and woodwork are the physical embodiment of the lives, values and attitudes of a diverse and sophisticated industry. The house helps us understand how the building trades of the early nineteenth century were organized to create a monument of lasting value.