J.F. sends me a photo of his entry hall — and you can see how lovely it is — he has added a piece he found at a thrift store, a series of antique drawers, which are in fact old wooden boxes, and I have discovered for him that these boxes were used for the molding of bricks.
The many boxes or molds are set into a wrought iron shelf armature.
He also sends me a shot of the bottom of one of these molds, which has mirror-relief logo style lettering. Each drawer/mold has different lettering — some in English; some, the best I can decipher, in Hindi.
When I say mirror relief, I mean that to obtain a pattern of lettering on a mold, one has to create the lettering in reverse, or mirror image. So I was able to decipher the lettering by holding the photo to the mirror. And it is interesting to me that both Hindi and English read left to right.
Another clue to what these little drawers originally contained in the fact that J.F. says they contained sand.
Knowing that we are looking at something used for industry, I asked myself. “What is the history of that industry?”
In India, if I am right about reading some of the lettering as Hindi, the traditional methods of brick making are still practiced today.
When J.F. asked me about the age of this collection of mold/drawers, I had to reply that they are not that old because I can see some plastic molds, located on the bottoms of the drawers, which would put them later than 1862. That’s when Parkesine was invented, and that was an early organic plastic.
Later, in 1907, we see the invention of synthetic plastic in the development of Bakelite.
So now we know that J.F.’s piece is no earlier than the first quarter of the 20th century, which indicates the age of what he has found, but does not indicate the age of the industry for which it was founded. The method of brickmaking hinted upon by these little drawer/molds goes back thousands of years, especially as regards ancient India, and there is residue of that today.
The process starts with clay, which is mined and aged in the air, then mixed with water, and in India, sometimes by hand and foot. A lump of clay is rolled and placed in one of those mold boxes that J.F. has, which has been coated with sand and left to dry in the rack.
Traditionally the mold box was wood, which indicates to me the boxes J.F. has, although not old (perhaps early to mid-20th century because of the plastics used), were products of ancient style of mold making.
Once the brick is dry, the mold is emptied and dried in the sun. The artisan flips the brick every two days. These are called green bricks, and they are fired in the kiln for at least a week. They are then sorted, and the baked bricks are the most desired. The green ones line the outside of the kilns in India.
I myself have a special connection with brick manufacture, as my great-grandfather Gustav was a brick engineer outside of Leipzig, Germany. He invented a type of kiln which is used in India today. He died at the age of 50 shifting bricks.
His son, my “Opa.” also became a great inventor. I visited that spot where Gustav built his kiln in the 1970s, sneaking behind the East German Iron Curtain (oh, the boldness of youth!)
An article published in the National Geographic by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek in 2019 speaks of the dire conditions of brick laborers in present-day India. Most of the workers are women, and bricks are very heavy, yet the kilns in India produce 250 billion bricks a year, second only in production to China. The normal workday, according to Salopek, is 12 to 18 hours a day in shifting brick from the very molds we see that J.F. now owns in Santa Barbara.
The great-granddaughter of a brick mason, who, because of J.F.’s question, has learned that the history of brick manufacture goes back well past the Roman Empire, which used baked brick in enormous quantities. You may be surprised to know how necessary bricks are and always were- the Empire State Building used 10 million bricks in this construction.
I adore JF’s brick mold rack as a piece of sculpture: I am not sure about its heritage. Still the value is $2,000, as I see the molds are sought after.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.
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