MissPres Architectural Word of the Week: Penciled

Recently I saw some neat pictures of the Old Brick House (built c.1850) in Biloxi.  That gave me the idea for this week’s MissPres Architectural Word of the Week: Penciled.  The Old Brick House sits facing Biloxi’s Back Bay, so folks maybe more acquainted with the street side rear of the structure than what was built as the front.

This week’s word as defined in Cyril M. Harris’s Dictionary of Architecture and Construction (4th Ed.)

Penciled: (\ˈpen(t)-səld\) Descriptive of a mortar joint in a brick wall used in the early 19th century when extremely thin mortar joints were fashionable.  They were prepared as follows: First the wall, with mortar joints flush with the brick surface, was painted the color of the brick; then a narrow white line painted along the center of the mortar joints.

Where protected from the elements by the porches you can see trace evidence from when the entire house was painted red and penciled.  In these shots you can see remaining the vertical joints that were painted in white.  In another shot you can see some of the red paint still remaining. In the last image, the penciling is very obvious once you see a portion of the restored work next to the original.

Why might people do this, paint their house instead of using the fine brick?   I don’t know the answer.  Having a skilled painter paint brick over top what you have already paid a mason to build would not have been much cheaper than having a skilled mason lay thin mortar joints in the first place.  Perhaps the answer lies in the availability, or lack thereof, of high-quality pressed brick that would give a smooth complementary appearance to the thin mortar joints.  Two examples below show the look that penciled brick structures were attempting to achieve. Both of these examples are in Natchez.

At Melrose (built 1847-1848), to make up for the lack of high-quality pressed brick, the masons employed a common technique of rubbing the face of the brick and the mortar joints smooth after the wall is laid up.  The other example, the Old Adams County Jail (built 1891), was built at a time when high-quality pressed brick was available in Natchez.

I just recently came across the new-to-me The Painters Encyclopædia published in 1887.  In this nifty book the author defines “Penciling Brick” as follows;

Penciling Brick. — The lines in imitation of mortar are drawn with a brush, called by some a “brick header” (q.v.), along with a straight-edge. The paint should be mixed with turpentine, and be used thick enough not to run.

The only other example of penciling that springs to mind is Monmouth (built 1818, remodeled c.1853) in Natchez.  I believe Monmouth still has some original penciling remaining on a back wall that is protected by an addition.  Below is the only photograph I could locate of that penciling.

Monmouth Penciling Natchez Adams County 2007 MDAH HRI db accessed 3-29-17

Since I would notion that there are plenty of examples of buildings with thin mortar joints being built late into the 19th and even into the early 20th century, and our examples of penciled brick hail from the mid-19th century, I think Mr. Harris’ definition slightly limiting.  Do you have a Mississippi example of a building that is or was at one time painted and penciled?  If so please share! With all this nice weather we are being blessed with, get outside, scope out this and all the previous MissPres Architectural Word of the Week. You just never know where they will pop up next!

Categories: Biloxi, Books, Historic Preservation, Jails, Natchez, National Park Service


4 replies

  1. Penciling has a similar intention as tuckpointing (the correct use of the term, not how most people use it). Like many interesting and now-forgotten techniques such as tuckpointing and scored stucco, penciling was a way to achieve a high quality finish in a land and time when materials were expensive and labor cheap. Labor costs were very cheap throughout America in the antebellum period but even more so in Mississippi due to the high percentage of slaves, some of whom were building artisans. Brick on the other hand was made by hand and fired in a kiln very close to whatever was being built since, like most Deep South states, Mississippi was averse to internal improvements such as roads, railroads, canals, and dredging (unless someone else picked up the bill, which sounds very much like the current modus operandi). That made transportation difficult and expensive. It is why we do not see pressed brick and stone in the state until the end of the 19th Century.

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    • In James Gallier’s 1833 The American builder’s general price book and estimator he gives the same price $0.24 cents per cubic foot for both “Brickwork In External Walls, The Joints Smooth” and “Brickwork In Facings To Fronts, Laid With Fine Mortar In The Best Manner.” The difference lies in the cost of the brick (1000 common brick @$5.75 vs. 1000 best “Poughkeepsie” stretchers @$19.50) and the amount of time to construct (1 day vs. 3 1/2 days). While the slaves might not have earned a wage someone was certainly collecting compensation for their labor. Gallier gives a price of $0.01 cent per foot for “Brick fronts painted one coat, and the joints drawn white”


      • I did not mean to imply that slave labor was exactly free, but it had little cost to the slaveowner and only somewhat more if the slave was hired out. Two recent books (which I only had time to glance at) examined the effects of slave labor in skilled trades: Artisan Workers in the Upper South: Petersburg, Virginia, 1820-1865 by Diane Barnes and Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900 by Catherine Bishir. Since those are books about the Upper South, they are not the exact experience of Mississippi but can provide some insight into Mississippi’s conditions during that era.

        That Gallier book is a great resource on the era. I have never read it and will have to do so. The price difference between the two types of brick you mention illustrates why a practice like penciling existed. Also, when looking at the cost of those types of brick, does the price include transportation cost? Small brick kilns existed wherever there was local need and clay, where as “Poughkeepsie” stretchers could only be produced in a specialized manner. The Old Brick House could have used bricks made from clay deposits in the area with significantly less cost than shipping pressed bricks from the Northeast and used some of the difference to ship a penciling artisan from New Orleans.

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