The first bricks in the English colonies in North America were probably made in Virginia as early as 1612. New England saw its first brick kiln erected at Salem, Massachusetts in 1629. The Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam imported yellow bricks from Holland, which imparted a Dutch character to the architecture of the city. The excellent quality and abundance of local clays in the colonies made it unnecessary to import bricks from across the Atlantic. Brick-making centers developed in Fort Orange (what is now Albany), New York; near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Burlington and Trenton, New Jersey, as well as along the Raritan River.2

"Method of Manufacturing Brick," NY State Museum, April 1893

Brickmaking Processes

PREFACE: There are three processes used in making bricks, varying primarily in the amount of water mixed with the clay.3

  • STIFF-MUD/EXTRUDED: In this process, used for most building bricks, only enough water is added to the clay to make it into a stiff paste that can be extruded through a die into a long ribbon or column of clay. The clay is sliced into brick-sized chunks by a brick cutter, a machine with a series of cutting wires. A vacuum pump may be used to remove air from the clay to make it stronger and easier to handle.

  • DRY-PRESSED: In this process, the clay mix is only dampened. The clay is then compressed under high pressure into molds, This method is used for face and refractory brick. Since there is little water in the mix, the bricks can be fired without long drying periods.

  • SOFT-MUD: In this process, more water is used to make a soft paste of clay. Molds are dipped in sand or water to prevent sticking, and the paste is pressed into place and allowed to dry. This method is used for all hand-made bricks and is the method we will focus on in this history.

How Bricks Were Made With the Soft-Mud Process
from the Mid 1800s to the Early 1900s


The main ingredients were clay and sand or shale. The clay was dug from the shore or from under bodies of water (such as the Hudson River). Beach sand mixed in very well and improved the quality of the brick, but in some places along the Hudson there was up to 12 inches of oyster shells lying on top - these had to be removed, as the chemical reaction from the slaked lime would crack the brick. The clay had to be dredged in early spring or late fall to allow time for seasoning and all the water had to drain off. Next, the clay was screened to remove rocks and the shale and clay were ground into powder by a crusher and stored.

Here a team of mules and horses is being used to haul a two-wheeled scraper to a platform where the clay powder was dumped into small, side-dumping railroad carts called "dinkies" which were pulled by cables or small locomotives.

The powder was brought up to a "Pug Mill" via a long incline as seen on the far right here at the Leonard Brick Factory in Delton, Michigan

In the Pug Mill, water was added to the powder and the clay and sand mixture was soaked, stirred and kneaded with large augers or wooden paddles until doughy. This step was called tempering or pugging and was the hardest work of all. In the mid-1800's horse driven pug mills were invented. The clay was removed from the soaking pit or pug mill by a temperer who delivered it to the moulding area.


Note the brickmold being held by the lad on the left. These are some of the Leonard brickyard employees. (George Leonard is second from the left.)

Before the invention of steam-driven machines, bricks were moulded by hand. A great description of this is on the web site Ricks-Bricks: "The assistant brick moulder was called the "clot" moulder and he would prepare a lump of clay and give it to the brick moulder. The brick moulder was the key to the operation and he was the head of the team. He would stand at the moulding table for twelve to fourteen hours a day and with the help of his assistants could make 3500 to 5000 bricks in a day. He would take the clot of clay, roll it in sand and "dash" it into the sanded mould. The clay was pressed into the mould with the hands and the excess clay removed from the top of the mould with a strike, which was a flat stick that had been soaking in water. This excess clay was returned to the clot moulder to be reformed. Sand was used to prevent the clay from sticking to the mould."

GARNER Six-Brick Mould
(Courtesy: Haverstraw Brick Museum)

"Single, double, four or six brick moulds were used. The single brick mould had an advantage in that a child could carry it to the drying area. Beechwood was the preferred material for the mould for it was claimed that the clay would not stick to it. The top of the mould was laminated with iron to prevent wear. The brick slid easily out of the mould because it was sanded and these bricks are referred to as 'sand struck bricks.' The process was also referred to as slop moulding."

"The next person on the team was called an off-bearer. He would walk up to the moulding table, remove the filled mould and take it to a drying area on a pallet or barrow where it would be placed on a level bed of sand. He would then return the mould to the table and wet and sand it to receive the next brick."

Over the years a few rudimentary tools were introduced to help streamline production and in 1830, Nathaniel Adams of Newburgh and Cornwall, NY, invented a moulding machine. However this required human or animal labor to operate.

The real break-through came in 1852, when a steam-powered machine was developed by Richard VerValen. (Scroll down for a complete section on this significant invention.)

The Chambers Brick-Machine
From: Appleton's Cyclopedia of Applied Mechanics, 1892

Other early brick-making machines like this one, patented in 1863 by Cyrus Chambers of Philadelphia, used stiff mud which was forced out in long ribbons on a conveyor belt, transferred to moulds and cut by a revolving cutter. As time progressed, up to 25 brick could be cut at a time. The brick were then stamped with the appropriate name or design.


The inside of the drying shed, where bricks air-dried prior to firing.

Four crews of two workers stacked the brick on kiln carts, or brick buggies, and when the carts were loaded, other crews put the bricks in the dryers. Several types of dryers were available: dryer sheds, dryer tunnels and drying yards. Dryer sheds were located within the factory. These were rooms with large fans, run by steam engines, at each end of the shed to dry the brick. Dryers had to be kept at a constant temperature. Tunnels were also used for drying. These dried brick were called "green brick". Eighty thousand to 100,000 green brick were manufactured in a day.

Turning bricks so they rest on edges and dry evenly,
Haverstraw, N.Y.
(Keystone View Co.)

Again quoting from Ricks-Bricks: For yard drying, "the moulded bricks were stacked in a herring bone pattern to dry in the air and the sun. The moulded bricks were first left to dry for two days at which time they were turned over to facilitate uniform drying and prevent warping. During this time tools called dressers or clappers were used by "edgers" to to straighten the bricks and obtain a smooth surface. After four days of dry hot weather the bricks were sufficiently hard to allow them to be stacked in a herringbone pattern with a finger's width between them to allow further drying. This area was called a hack or a hackstead and the bricks were covered under roof or with straw to protect them from the rain or harsh sun. After two weeks the bricks were ready to be burned."

George V. Hutton (a descendent of the founder of the Hutton Brick Company in East Kingston, NY) describes the drying yards at the Hutton factory: "they consisted of 10" of gravel for drainage, then 6 to 8" of blue clay on top, then 3" yellow clay on top of that and finally a coating of sand to keep the bricks from sticking. The beds were rolled flat and the workers had to remove their shoes." It would take 3 days of drying before the bricks were ready to be moved to the kiln.


The bricks were arranged into arches and the fire built inside the arch -- the bricks themselves were the kiln. "If fired bricks were on hand, they were used to construct the outer walls of the kiln and the surface was daubed with mud to contain the heat. If no fired bricks were available, the kiln was constructed entirely of green or raw bricks which were stacked in such a way as to act as their own kiln. These kilns were called clamps or scove kilns. Some coal dust was added because it made them burn better, and some companies added red oxide for coloring, some didn't. The walls and top were plastered with a mixture of sand, clay, and water to retain the heat; at the top the bricks were placed close together and vented for circulation to pull the heat up through the bricks. The kilns were originally fired with wood, then some used anthracite coal, and some eventually used oil.1"

"Even after drying in air the green bricks contained 9-15% water. For this reason the fires were kept low for 24-48 hours to finish the drying process and during this time steam could be seen coming from the top of the kiln. This was called "water smoke". Once the gases cleared this was the sign to increase the intensity of the fires. If it was done too soon the steam created in the bricks would cause them to explode. Intense fires were maintained in the fire holes around the clock for a week until temperatures of 1800 degrees F were reached. The knowledge and experience of the brickmaker dictated when the fireholes would be bricked over and the heat was allowed to slowly dissipate over another week.1" The brick were baked from eight to 12 days. Each finished brick weighed approximately eight pounds. Salt was added in the kiln "eyes" while the brick baked. This changed their color and made them waterproof. When the bricks were sufficiently fired, the heat was reduced, and they were allowed to cool gradually before removal from the kiln.

Then the entire kiln was usually disassembled and the bricks were sorted. "If only raw bricks were used, the bricks from the outermost walls were kept to be burned again in the next kiln. Some bricks which were closest to the fire received a natural wood ash glaze from the sand that fell into the fires and became vaporized and deposited on the bricks. These bricks were used in the interior courses of the walls. Bricks that became severely over-burned and cracked or warped were called clinkers and were occasionally used for garden walls or garden paths.1"

"The best bricks were chosen for use on the exterior walls of the building. Those that were only slightly underfired had a salmon color and early bricklayers knew that the porosity of these bricks would help to insulate the structure and they were placed on the innermost courses of the wall.1"


Loading bricks from a "hake" into a freight car of the CK & S Railroad

The brick was removed from the kilns on brick buggies or kiln carts. Approximately 8,100 brick could be removed at a time. The men worked in pairs, one man would toss the brick from the kiln to the second man, who would load the buggy. The brick was then stored in large stacks, called hakes, out in the open. At full production, the amount of brick produced each month equaled one million. Sometimes there were as many as five months’ inventory before all the brick were shipped out. Eighty thousand brick were shipped per day. Each railroad car contained from 8,000 to 10,000 brick. The railway cars were loaded by hand with the brick buggies. Two men could load a car in one day.

Other yards shipped the finished brick via schooners or barges. Astoria, Queens was a major distribution center for the New York City area.

Brickmaking on Cape Cod

How Bricks Are Made Today

Photos of Today's Manufacturing Process at Belden Brick

How Bricks Are Made Today

Video of Modern Brickmaking Machines

NYC Fire

In 1835 there was a terrible fire in NYC: 674 buildings in the Wall Street area were burned, and 13 acres of the financial district devastated. This, along with the growing population of America due to immigration, created a tremendous need for building materials. From New York to California, the business boomed as stronger, fire-proof buildings were in great demand.

Inventions, Machines, Patents

Richard VerValen's Brickmaking Machine

Brickmakers were confounded by the problems they encountered with the oftentimes irregular shape of the building blocks, which at that time were made almost entirely by hand. A few rudimentary tools had been introduced to help streamline production and in 1830, Nathaniel Adams of Newburgh and Cornwall, NY, invented a moulding machine. However this required human or animal labor to operate.

The real break-through came in 1852, when Richard VerValen developed his brickmaking machine. This connected to a steam-powered drive shaft called a "power-line."

VerValen Machine

VerValen, who knew the industry and had "an inventive mind," pondered the dilemma for a time, according to the late historian, author and area resident, Daniel deNoyelles, in his book, Within These Gates."

Before VerValen invented his machine in 1852, the clay was forced into the moulds by hand, and therefore had to be rather soft - and when the bricks were dumped out of the moulds, many became misshapen. VerValen's machine made it possible to use stiffer clay. Quoting from deNoyelles:

"..the VerValen machine forced the raw clay into the moulds with a machined packer. The moulds held six brick paralleling each other. Under this newer method a stiffer clay could be used, which made a brick more square. The moulds were drawn by hand from a revolving sander where the iron oxide was added to the flour-like moulding sand. This dusted the insides of the moulds and allowed the soft brick to slip easily to the surface on the drying yards. Of course the filled mould were first 'struck off' by a two-handed knife about two feet long. This made the brick smooth on the exposed plane. This knife was called the moulder's strike'."

"The tempering of the mixture was effected back of the press by a steel shaft pinned with steel knives which extended into the raw clay, sand, and coal dust which had been conveyed above the press by a chain and bucket elevator."

"Red coloring was added to the outside of the newly-moulded brick by adding iron oxide to the moulding sand in the patent sander ca. 1885. Before that time, brick had been burned in their raw state, resulting in a light pink color with a yellowish tint at times. With the use of red ochre, as some oldtimers called it, the hard-burned brick had a deep red, and in some places, a rich purple hue."
Another machine was invented in 1874 to automatically 'sand' the moulds, so that it could keep up with the VerValen moulding machine.

A Closter, NJ native, VerValen had lived in Rockland County, NY as a child, then left for upstate New York before returning to Haverstraw in 1848, where he worked manufacturing stoves and plows in his foundry.

According to legend, it was in the middle of a Sunday church sermon that VerValen had a breakthrough and came up with the machine design. He patented his machine in 1852 and, its principles were "so workable and so novel to brickmaking" that they were used until a more advanced machine, incorporating some of his original ideas, was developed in the 1920s.

James Wood

In 1828 brickmaker James Wood discovered that adding 'culm' (coal crushed into a fine dust) to the mixture reduced burning time for a kiln by one-half, from FOURTEEN DAYS to SEVEN. Since the Hudson River clay deposits were the most extensive in America, James Wood's invention helped set the stage for the valley to become one of the largest brick manufacturing centers in the world.

Wood patented this process in 1836:

'Be it known that I, the said James Wood, have invented a new and useful improvement in the art of manufacturing bricks and tiles. The process is as follows: Take of common anthracite coal, unburnt, such quantity as will best suit the kind of clay to be made into brick or tile, and mix the same, when well pulverized, with the clay before [it] is moulded; that clay which requires the most burning will require the greatest proportion of coal-dust; the exact proportion, therefore, cannot be specified; but, in general, three fourths of a bushel of coal-dust to one thousand brick will be correct. Some clay may require one eighth more, and some not exceeding a half-bushel.

The benefits resulting from this composition are the saving of fuel, and the more general diffusion of heat through the kiln, by which the whole contents are more equally burned. If the heat is raised too high, the brick will swell, and be injured in their form. If the heat is too moderate, the coal- dust will be consumed before the desired effect is produced. Extremes are therefore to be avoided. I claim as my invention the using of fine anthracite coal, or coal-dust, with clay, for the purpose of making brick and tile as aforesaid, and for that only claim letters patent from the United States.
Dated 9th November, 1836.

Wood, an Englishman, came to Ossining, NY in 1814 but found little clay there so he leased a yard across the river (from Daniel deNoyelles) in Haverstraw and established his first brickyard in 1815. Later he invented a machine for tempering clay.

There also was a"Wood" brickyard in Tarrytown, NY:

"During the mid-1800's brick makers took advantage of the clay deposits in the (Sleepy Hollow/Tarrytown) area. In 1885 Wood Brick Yard sold its property at the foot of Beekman Avenue to the Rand Drill Company, in what would later become the home of several automobile manufactures. In 1899, on the south side of present day Kingsland Point Park, automobile making began with the Mobile Company of America producing the Stanley Steamer. This was succeeded by the Chevrolet Company and then the start of the General Motors Company in 1915. In 1996 after having assembled some 11 million vehicles General Motors closed down and dismantled all of its buildings as required by local law." Ed. Note: The site is now being developed for condominiums.

David Strickland

The first low-pressure steam brick dryer was invented by David Strickland in 1912 and in 1920 he created the Strickland Automatic Brick-making machine. Strickland created the oven-sized brick and introduced the coloring of common brick in the New York market. In the 1920s, he was manager of the Denning's Point Brick Works.

William Leonard


Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, things began to change. Cheaper European bricks flooded the market, and the focus shifted to lighter building materials such as glass, aluminum and steel. Veneers over poured concrete foundations were used instead of brick for building. The Great Depression sounded the industry's death knell, by 1933 the price for 1000 bricks fell from $20 to $9.50. World War II delivered the final blow.

Sources Consulted:

Casey, Thomas F. X., "A Brief History of Rockland County," (Rockland County Historian)
Clarke, Suzan, "Haverstraw's place in history assured by machine," The Journal News, March 28, 2003
deNoyelles, Daniel, Within These Gates
2Ewan, N.R., 1970.  “Early Brick Making in the Colonies”.  19 Dec. 2006.
Haring, Regina M., "Brickmaking Along the Hudson River"
Henry, Keith, "The brick-making era of Robbins, Tenn"
Kroes, Florence Leonard, "Brickmaking: A History ," 1966
Mayone, Mike, "The Gentleman from Ulster" (Mike's great grandfather Joseph founded the MAYONE brickyard in Athens, NY)
3Vogel, Michael N., Up Against the Wall: An Archaeological Field Guide to Bricks in Western New York

1"Ricks_Bricks" (a great web site on Brickmaking c1850):
The Neversink Valley Area Museum:
"HISTORY OF BEACON, Dutchess County, New York:"
"History of Local Brick Making:"

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