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Bricks, Aesthetics, and the Market by Scott Cook
with and impacted the mass-market industrialization process, resulting in the parallel development of two mechanized brickmaking technologies identified as “soft mud” and “stiff mud” to differentiate between the higher clay and lower water composition of stiffer material compared to softer material. “Soft mud” processes are designed to simulate handmade bricks, whereas “stiff mud” processes are designed to mass produce bricks that are highly uniform in size, shape, and texture in the most technologically advanced, efficient, and least costly way possible. In short, bricks produced by these two processes are similar in quality but have different objectively expressable aesthetic attributes, and their use and appeal architecturally is largely subjective. Innovative mechanized processes have facilitated producing bricks with many of the markings and linear irregularities of artisanal bricks at high levels of output. The key to this mechanized simulation process lies in the proper mix of clays with higher sand content and lower sand content. Typically, empty molds are sanded before loaded with clay, then the exposed surfaces of the clay in the molds are sanded.
all photos by scott cook
With a tradition of brick manufacture and brick construction dating back to pre-statehood days of the early nineteenth century, Texas provides a unique laboratory for examining persistence and change in the clay brick industry. Two reasons for this are the state’s sheer physical breadth and its enormous demographic growth from 1900 to the present. As in other regions of the U.S. and in Europe, the flourishing mass markets in Texas during the twentieth century necessarily transformed brick manufacture from an industry composed of many smallscale, labor-intensive, family-owned businesses employing manual production to one dominated by a few large-scale, capital-intensive, corporate-run organizations operating mechanized technology. The increased demand for bricks to supply the state’s expanding construction market could only be met by opening more plants, and by building larger operations equipped with more and more efficient machinery. Inevitably, the emerging mass market led to the marginalization of handmade brick production. Paradoxically, a persisting demand for the aesthetic quality of handmade bricks collided
A worker molds brick at Ladrillera Reynosa in this photo taken in 1999. The same labor-intensive process continues today at small, family-owned plants around Reynosa.
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The process results in a controlled mix of dry and wet sand that imparts to each mechanically molded brick the rough texture, markings, and irregularities of shape and texture associated with hand-molded brick. Bricks made in this fashion are marketed as “machine-made, sand-molded,” “wood-mold look-alike,” “soft mud-molded,” “Old Colonial-face bricks,” and so on. A nother reason why Texas is a uniq ue laboratory for examining changes in brick manufacturing, marketing, and use is the state’s historical relationship with and proximity to Mexico. In the lower border region, urbanization on both sides of the Rio Grande during the nineteenth century stimulated brick manufacturing and construction. After 1900, with the industrial development and urbanization of the Rio Grande Valley, regional brickmaking flourished. Although some bricks were exported from Mexico during the early decades of the twentieth century, much of the Texas market was supplied by plants operating at many sites in three counties (Cameron, Hidalgo, and Starr) of the Rio Grande Valley. Especially noteworthy is the case of Guenther Weiske’s Valley Brick & Tile Company that grew from a small artisanal brick plant he established in 1913 on a ranch named “El Gavilán” near the Rio Grande. Weiske, a German immigrant, subsequently relocated his plant to a 60-acre site in Madero close to Mission, and then acquired another plant on a 160-acre site in Rio Grande City. Weiske’s Valley Brick & Tile Company (VBTC) produced tens of millions of handmolded and extruded (soft and stiff mud) bricks under the banner of “What the Valley Makes, Makes the Valley.” Closed in 1972 and 1980 respectively, these abandoned plant sites today stand as vivid reminders of deindustrialization and for what was the principal non-agricultural industry in the Rio Grande Valley. There are complex reasons for the shutdown of the Madero and Rio Grande City plants, both owned and operated by Weiske from 1943 until 1965 when Rudy Nordmeyer assumed ownership of the Rio Grande City plant (Rio Clay Products). Both plants had extensive on-site clay deposits and a local supply of labor, as well as management committed to technological innovation.
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Published on Oct 17, 2011
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