Recently during my microfilm tour of the 1905/1906 issues of the Vicksburg Post in search of something completely different, I stumbled on two articles that detailed the establishment of Vicksburg’s concrete block industry, and remembering our own Thomas Rosell’s posts on the concrete blocks of Biloxi, I copied them off. I noticed the variety of early concrete block buildings when I was in Vicksburg on Pilgrimage earlier this year, and these articles nicely rounded out the story and gave me some dates to chew on.
Most of what I know about the history of concrete blocks comes from the chapter on the subject, “Stone for the Masses” in Pamela H. Simpson’s excellent book Cheap, Quick, & Easy: Imitative Architectural Materials, 1870-1930. Simpson’s writing makes what could be a dry subject instead come alive with the vibrancy and imagination of the United States at the turn of the twentieth century (also check out the other chapters, including the one on linoleum :-). Here we learn that concrete blocks as an industrially produced building material began with the patent in 1900 for H.M. Palmer’s block machine. Within only a few years, this new technology had spread into the mass culture: as Simpson notes, “the striking aspect of concrete block’s history is the rapidity with which the public accepted it” (p.11).
In fact, the article in Vicksburg’s paper about the “first building in the city to be made of this material” comes from 1905, only five years after the patent and only three years after Palmer started his company, Hollow Building Block Company. As we’ve noted Vicksburg was still first in population in the state at this time, so it’s possible that this could have been the first use of concrete blocks in the state, although I’m sure several other towns could vie for that title.
It’s interesting to me in the article below that the impetus for the new technology appears to have come not from a contractor or architect but from a businessman who decided to give it a try on his new building. Unfortunately, the Bonelli Building is no longer standing (possibly destroyed in the 1953 tornado, which came through that part of downtown), but there is a commercial building still standing down south of the library that looks to have blocks of similar relatively shallow dimensions noted here–I’ve included pictures of that building for your viewing pleasure. Obviously, this article contains a big dose of boosterism, but it also paints a picture of the reasons for using concrete block, especially in a region without good building stone, that caused it to become so ubiquitous in such a short time.
Vicksburg Evening Post, December 2, 1905, p.1
MANUFACTURE OF CEMENT BUILDING BLOCKS
Will be Used in Construction of the New Bonelli Building–Some Advantages of the New Material
The new Bonelli building at Washington and Veto streets is to be constructed of cement blocks. It will be the first building in the city to be made of this material. The blocks are being made here under the direction of Mr. Joseph Bonelli.
The blocks are 24 inches long, 12 inches wide and 8 inches deep. They are made of cement, sand and gravel. The clay from the gravel must first be washed away, and the blocks would not be near as strong with the presence of the clay. When the blocks become dry and hardened, they are of great strength and practically indestructible, being even stronger than granite.
Advantages of Block
It is stated the cement blocks are the coming building material and they are being put to many uses in the North. With age the cement blocks lose none of their strength, they are absolutely fireproof and can stand an enormous pressure. Another advantage is that when they are used in making walls, they may be put down much quicker than an equal bulk of brick. This means less work for the brick masons, and less use of mortar. The cement blocks are hollow. This add to the comfort of the building in which they are used, making the structure cooler in summer and warmer in winter. Insurance companies allow a narrower wall of cement blocks than of brick.
Mr. Bonelli has a force of workmen under charge of an expert making the blocks. A new model press for molding the blocks is on hand. There are a number of different shape molds that may be used for the surface–beveled, imitation of rough granite, etc. The blocks now being made are to be used on the inner walls of the building and are plain, dark sand being used. For the Veto and Washington street walls, a different kind of block will be prepared–and a fine, white sand will be used. This will give the appearance of limestone blocks.
How Blocks Are Made
About four thousand cement block will be used in the new building. About 175 a day are now being made. This is the process of construction: the mold is arranged with the outside surface at the bottom. Depressed end pieces are put in to make the blocks partly hollow. Then a cement preparation is thrown in from the top to make a smooth outward surface. Following this the gravel, well mixed, with sand and cement, is then thrown in the mold and well temped. When the mold is half filled, a metal block known as the “core” is placed in position. The mold is then filled to the top with the material and tamped. It hardens quickly under the pressure and may be taken from the mold at once. The “core” is then removed, leaving the blocks hollow. Several weeks must elapse before the block have hardened sufficiently for them to be used in the building. A semi-dry process of manufacture is used.
The Material Used
Some trouble is experienced in getting the clay separated from the gravel, and this must be washed out by a tedious process. Mr. Bonelli yesterday received a carload of fine cement. The gravel is secured from the Garbish pits north of the city.
The new Bonelli building will have a basement, which will contain a steam-heating apparatus. When the removal of the earth is completed building operations will begin. It is stated several persons in the city are contemplated making structures with cement blocks and are waiting to see results and appearance of the blocks in the Bonelli building.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the first contractor to jump on the bandwagon and build Vicksburg’s first concrete block plant, and I’ll show you some examples of the fine houses built of this lowly building material.