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  • Emmanuel Mehr

City of Brick: Bricks and Early Baltimore

BHW 42: November 18, 2023

A cornerstone that includes the engraved date "1865."
Figure 1. Eli Pousson, “Cornerstone, First Apostolic Faith Church, 27 S. Caroline Street,” public domain [1].


In 1793, a visitor to Baltimore remarked, “This town is built chiefly of Brick.” [2] By 1881, historian J. Thomas Scharf asserted, “The Baltimore press brick is almost as well-known as the Chesapeake oyster.” [3] An examination of histories of brick in early Baltimore reveals how brick manufacture and usage came to characterize the city. Baltimore was built in an area naturally endowed with ideal brick-making clays, and throughout its early development Baltimoreans learned to make the most of these resources. From rough clays for coarse brick to the more condensed clays of the finest pressed brick, Baltimore bricks came to both constitute and represent the city. [4] The story of bricks in Baltimore is instructive for understanding intersections of race with labor, the prominence of the brick-based Baltimore rowhouse, the sheer volume of manufacturing in early Baltimore, and some of the most notable events in Baltimore history.

Brickmaking in early Baltimore provides a manifestation of how race, labor, and capitalism intersected in the Early Republic city. In 1798, Baltimore had four Black brick workers for every one white brick worker. As historian Seth Rockman emphasizes, this racial composition caused thirteen brickyard owners to petition the Baltimore City Council for assistance in attracting white workers to the occupation. The brick moguls argued that the arduousness of brick-making labor kept white Baltimoreans away, only attracting the city’s less selective Black working class. Yet, Rockman finds, “Converting to white labor was never so much a priority for the brick manufacturers that they barred black workers or offered higher wages to lure white workers.” [5] Enslaved Black Baltimoreans also worked in the brickyards. In late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Baltimore, the city’s workforce was organized in a way that enabled co-working of enslaved and free workers. Slavery did not characterize Baltimorean urban labor, just as it was not responsible for the growth of the city itself. Indeed, as historian Barbara Fields writes, “Where slave and free workers are volatile substitutes for one another on the market, there slavery has become an attribute of individuals, not any longer of the system that organizes their labor.” [6] While Baltimore brickmaking included enslaved workers, just like the city itself it was not characterized by enslaved labor. This does not make the presence of enslaved brick workers any less significant, and historian T. Stephen Whitman finds that in 1813, twenty-two enslaved Baltimoreans worked in the brickyards. [7]

Brick production characterized a significant portion of early Baltimore’s laboring economy. These bricks were made by hand. [8] While mechanized brick-molding innovations were introduced around mid-century, it was not until the late-nineteenth century that Baltimore brickmaking was thoroughly mechanized. Before this, brick workers laboriously pushed wet clay into wooden or iron-based molds to form each individual unit. [9] A Maryland Historical Trust archaeological study provides helpful insights into the brick-making process in nineteenth-century Baltimore. The process started with the collection of the clays, known as “mining.” The clay was then left to sit over the winter, allowing its minerals to settle. Then it was tempered, “to make it pliable and to give it an even consistency.” At this point, the clay was hand-molded into a brick shape. Then, the bricks were left to dry before the final production step, which was being fired in a kiln. [10]

Brick is a fundamental feature of the most distinctive of Baltimore’s architectural features: the rowhouse. A 1799 Baltimore City ordinance outlawed wood-frame house construction due to the growing city’s fire risks. [11] This was intended to mitigate damage in an era before centralized professional firefighters in Baltimore. [12] Builders and developers turned to the rowhouse as a brick-based alternative to wood frames. When British tourist James Silk Buckingham visited Baltimore around 1840, he astutely observed: “The houses are chiefly built of fine red bricks, which are manufactured of excellent quality, and beautifully worked here.” [13] Brick rowhouses characterized Baltimore living across class lines, uniting Baltimoreans through a shared residential type. [14] As architecture scholars Mary Ellen Hayward and Charles Belfoure point out, “During the nineteenth century, rowhouses sheltered almost all Baltimoreans from the very rich to the very poor. Those for the wealthy were architect-designed; those for everyone else were built on speculation and, for the most part, designed by the builders themselves.” [15] A ground rent system motivated speculators to buy up land and build large quantities of the high demand rowhouses, investing in ready housing for residents of the booming city. [16] Ground rent meant that homebuyers owned their house but paid rent on the ground underneath it, providing profits for land speculators. [17] The established standards and insatiable demand for rowhouses in turn of the nineteenth century Baltimore provided a lucrative vehicle for investment. [18]

The quantities of Baltimore bricks produced, used, and exported in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries reflect their significance. “Baltimore bricks” appeared in official city records as a major export as early as 1790. Over the subsequent years, overall Baltimore exports rose from $2,027,770 in 1790 to $10,000,000 by 1798. [19] By 1832, about thirty-two million bricks were made within Baltimore City limits. This was nearly a third of the total amount of bricks produced in the United States that year. [20] Baltimore also used massive quantities of local bricks for public works projects. When the Baltimore municipality modified the lake now known as Lake Roland in 1860, adding a conduit and dam, over six million bricks were used in the project. The city’s vital transportation infrastructure also used a lot of bricks. For example, from 1871 to 1873 the construction of the Union Railroad tunnel used roughly 8,810,000 bricks. [21] As Whitman asserts, “Few businesses flourished as much as brick making during Baltimore’s rapid commercial and residential expansion.” [22] Baltimore bricks were also more valuable than the bricks produced in other American cities, due to their great quality and reputation. Although their sources are unclear, one nineteenth-century observer noted, “[Baltimore-made bricks] Are worth ten dollars a thousand more than similar grades of New York, Philadelphia, or Chicago bricks.” [23] Bricks built Baltimore, and Baltimore built excellent bricks.

Baltimore brickmaking also directly relates to some of the most significant historical developments in Baltimore history. While Baltimore’s brick rowhouses have British origins, bricks also protected the city when it was attacked by the British. [24] When British forces attacked Fort McHenry in September 1814, its fortifications were built significantly of Baltimore brick. [25] The Baltimore brick export trade connects these bricks to another important feature of early Baltimore history: the city’s role in the domestic slave trade. One of the main destinations of ships carrying trafficked enslaved people out of Baltimore’s harbor was New Orleans. Indeed, historian Jennie K. Williams shows that, “Surviving manifests of captives aboard coastwise vessels document the forced transport of more than 12,500 enslaved people from Baltimore to New Orleans between 1818 and 1856.” [26] Relatedly, New Orleans was one of the main export destinations of Baltimore bricks. [27] It is likely that some of the ships carrying enslaved people from Baltimore to New Orleans also carried bricks.

Early Baltimore’s brick histories illuminate dynamics of race, labor, housing, manufacturing, and more. In 1833, cartographer Charles Varle observed, “The best bricks in the United States are manufactured in Baltimore, and the exportation of that branch of industry is now considerable.” [28] This was an understatement of the significance of Baltimore brick exports, which were shipped around the United States even before the rise of mass transportation infrastructure. [29] As early as 1790, bricks were a major Baltimore export. In the decades that followed, Baltimore’s industrial development proceeded alongside its brick production. The now-famous Baltimore rowhouse is characterized by its brick features and provides an articulation of the city’s iconic brick heritage. Due to the prominence of bricks in Baltimore histories, the remnants of past brickyards are important cultural sites. One such site now includes Baltimore’s National Football League stadium, which is built on top of a former brickyard. Brick mogul John W. Berry produced bricks at various sites around the city, increasingly at this particular yard in the Camden Yards neighborhood around the mid-nineteenth century. This was a great location for a brickyard, as it was conveniently located near the ideal brickmaking clays of both the Chesapeake Bay and the Patapsco River. [30] The Baltimore Ravens football team is named after a poem by Baltimore’s most-famous white resident, Edgar Allan Poe. [31] That their stadium lies on an industrial brickyard connects the team to a rich Baltimore history that is much more diverse and reflective of the industrial city’s past than their Poe namesake.


[1] Eli Pousson, “Cornerstone, First Apostolic Faith Church, 27 S. Caroline Street,” photograph (Baltimore, MD, March 14, 2018), Baltimore Heritage, public domain,

[2] James Kent, “A New Yorker in Maryland: 1793 and 1831,” Maryland Historical Magazine 47, no. 2 (June 1952): 139,

[3] J. Thomas Scharf, History of Baltimore City and County (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1881 [1874]), 418,

[4] E. Emmet Reid, “Commerce and Manufactures of Baltimore,” in Baltimore: Its History and Its People, ed. Clayton Coleman Hall (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1912), 522,

[5] Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 69,

[6] Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 52,

[7] T. Stephen Whitman, The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997), 19-20, Kindle edition.

[8] Mary Ellen Hayward and Charles Belfoure, The Baltimore Rowhouse (New York: Princeton University Press, 1999), 76,

[9] Maryland Historical Trust, “J.S. Berry Firebrick Pug Mill: Phase II and Phase III Archaeological Database and Inventory,” Site Number: 18BC89, date unspecified, 3,; Hayward and Belfoure, The Baltimore Rowhouse, 26.

[10] Maryland Historical Trust, “J.S. Berry Firebrick Pug Mill,” 3.

[11] Rockman, Scraping By, 22; Hayward and Belfoure, The Baltimore Rowhouse, 25.

[12] Louise Malloy, “Fire Protection,” in Baltimore: Its History and Its People, ed. Clayton Coleman Hall (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1912), 432,

[13] James Silk Buckingham, America, Historical, Statistic, and Descriptive (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1841), 266,

[14] Robert L. Alexander, “Baltimore Row Houses of the Early Nineteenth Century,” American Studies 16, no. 2 (Fall 1975): 75,; Hayward and Belfoure, The Baltimore Rowhouse, 1.

[15] Hayward and Belfoure, The Baltimore Rowhouse, 3.

[16] Rockman, Scraping By, 22.

[17] Hayward and Belfoure, The Baltimore Rowhouse, 9.

[18] Alexander, “Baltimore Row Houses,” 68.

[19] Ruthella Mory Bibbins, “The City of Baltimore, 1797-1850,” in Baltimore: Its History and Its People, ed. Clayton Coleman Hall (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1912), 63, 73,

[20] Scharf, History of Baltimore City and County, 418.

[21] Scharf, History of Baltimore City and County, 344-345.

[22] Whitman, The Price of Freedom, 19.

[23] Jacob Frey, Reminiscences of Baltimore (Baltimore: Maryland Book Concern, 1893), 420,

[24] Hayward and Belfoure, The Baltimore Rowhouse, 14.

[25] Lee H. Nelson, “Brickmaking in Baltimore, 1798,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 18, no. 1 (March 1959): 33,

[26] Jennie K. Williams, “Trouble the water: The Baltimore to New Orleans coastwise slave trade, 1820-1860,” Slavery & Abolition 41, no. 2 (June 2020): 276,

[27] Scharf, History of Baltimore City and County, 418.

[28] Charles Varle, A Complete View of Baltimore (Baltimore: Samuel Young, 1833), 164,

[29] Reid, “Commerce and Manufactures of Baltimore,” 522.

[30] Maryland Historical Trust, “J.S. Berry Firebrick Pug Mill,” 3.


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