From the beginning of Williamsburg’s history, bricks have played a vital role. Seen in practically every building within the Historic Area today, they are a testament to the wealth of the inhabitants of Virginia’s capital city. Bricks allow chimneys of homes and shops to reach into the sky and allow the foundations and cellars of those buildings to rest comfortably in the earth. When those buildings fade from existence, buried brick becomes a legacy of that past, but not forgotten, time. Such is the case at the Anderson property where l all that remains of a crowded and busy Armoury are the bricks left for the archaeologists, architects, and Historic Trades to rediscover, investigate, and recreate.
Not long after the founding of Williamsburg as the new capital of Virginia in 1699, laws were passed governing what types of construction methods were to be used in building this new city. Lessons learned not only from Jamestown, which experienced three fires, but also from the Great Fire of London in 1666, led to the required use of brick in construction in urban areas such as Williamsburg. Structures were to be built on brick foundations or cellars, and all chimneys were to be of brick. With no local stone, the only other option for most Virginians was building with wood and mud, often with disastrous results. Homes built with woodwork sitting on the earth were subject to rot or infestation. Fires were commonplace. Bricks were the preferred, though also expensive, alternative.
Williamsburg’s bricks are made of local clay found throughout the region. The local geology is perfect for brickmaking in that clay was, and still is, abundant. The clay is fairly clean with very few if any stones found in it. It is also close to the surface with only a shallow layer of topsoil on top. After the clay is mined, it is s vigorously mixed with water. This is best done with bare feet treading the clay to the right consistency. Once mixed, the clay is put on a table, gathered into “brick-sized” quantities, coated with sand, and then dropped and pressed into a mold. The excess clay is “struck” off the top of the mold with a stick and the new bricks are set out to dry in the sun. After a few days the bricks can be handled and moved into a drying shed which protects the bricks from weather until the firing process commences. Once all of the bricks for an order have been made, these “green” bricks are stacked into a clamp, which is a temporary style of kiln used in brickmaking. The clamp is a pile of green bricks stacked about 10 feet tall, 10 feet wide, and as long as needed to accommodate all of the green bricks. Across the bottom of the clamp is a series of fire tunnels equivalent to the height of eight bricks and two bricks wide. The clamp should have a fire tunnel for every three thousand bricks. Firing the bricks is an around-the-clock job for the better part of five days. After a week or more of cooling, the clamp is unstacked, and all of the newly fired bricks are ready for building construction.
The Brickyard in Colonial Williamsburg began molding 10,000 bricks for the Anderson Kitchen in early June. The bricks were to match the size and color of surviving brickwork located by the archaeologists. Working seven days a week and aided by the feet of thousands of guests who wanted to give clay-treading a try, the Brickyard staff was able to finish the molding of those bricks by the beginning of August. Through August, we split our time between molding more bricks (those to be used at the Armoury reconstruction later next year) and building the clamp to fire the Kitchen bricks. By early September, the clamp was built and the fires were set alight on Wednesday, September 8th. The weather could not have been more pleasant for firing bricks. The wood burned beautifully and the bricks heated perfectly, almost as if they wanted to be burned. By Sunday afternoon, all signs indicated that the bricks were heated sufficiently and the firing was over. We now had to wait a week to see how successful we had been.
When we began to disassemble the clamp, we could not have asked for a better brick. They were well burnt throughout the clamp with about 75% of the brick suitable for building (the remaining 25% were a bit under-fired, which is normal with this sort of firing). Sorted onto pallets for delivery to the Anderson site, the natural color variation inherent in the uneven heat of a wood fired kiln blended beautifully to a red/brown/purple mix.
The bricks are now being used to rebuild the kitchen foundations. Staff members from the Historic Masonry Trades/Brickyard program are working alongside contractors who specialize in historic masonry to rebuild the foundation and chimney of Mr. Anderson’s kitchen. In the meantime, brickmaking will continue in the brickyard until we wrap up the rest of the bricks for the Armoury reconstruction with another kiln firing set to begin December 8. We’ll see you then.
Contributed by Jason Whitehead, Supervisor, Historic Masonry Programs.