Thursday, September 4, 2014

Avoiding Salmon Bricks, Crumbly Mortar and Pernicious Cockroaches

By Frank N. Barker
Assistant Education Coordinator

George Mason has a reputation as a planter, a patriot, a protector of rights, father, and Founding Father. But reading his collected letters, one can find that he was expert on all sorts of sundry matters from medical cures for flux, to the best method to make cyder, to what a militiaman should carry into battle. The renaissance men get all the press, but the 18th century men were amazing polymaths as well. In a July1763 letter to his neighbor Alexander Henderson in Colchester, George Mason lived up to his last name as he advised his friend on masonry affairs. Apparently Henderson was making preparations for building a house and Mason, having recently completed Gunston Hall, was happy to share his expertise.

A brick made at Gunston Hall.
Mason on Bricks
I wou’d advise you to have your Cellars quite up to the Water-Table laid wth. Sound Bricks; Salmon Bricks* are very apt to moulder in a Cellar when there is any Dampness, wh. few are without: it is usual with workmen to stowaway their bad Bricks in the Cellars, not because they will last better there than in the other parts of the Building, but because they are more out of Sight. Salmon Bricks may do very well for Inside-work above the Water-table, & in the Breasts & bulky parts of Chimney.

Mason on Mortar
When I built my House I was at some pains to measure all the Lime & Sand as my Mortar was made up, & always had two Beds, one for outside-Work 2/3ds. Lime & 1/3d. Sand, the other equal parts of Lime & Sand for Inside-work—it is easily measured in any old Tub or Barrel, & there is no other way to be sure of having your mortar good without Waste, & the different parts of yr. Building equally strong.

The sturdy brickwork at Gunston Hall, showing the flemish bond and the water table

Mason on Sand
If you have any good pit-sand, out of your Cellars or Well, it will make your mortar much tougher & stronger than it will be wth. other sand , & in that Case the proportion of Lime may be something less. Next to pit sand the River Shoar Sand on fresh Water is best, & the Sand in the Roads worst of all; as being very foul & full of Dust.

Mason on Pest Control
I wou’d by no means put any Clay or Loam in any of the Mortar; in the first place the Mortar is not near so strong, & besides from its being of a more soft & crumbly Nature, it is very appt to nourish & harbor those pernicious little Vermin the Cockroaches, who can’t so easily penetrate into the strong harsh Mortar made wth. Lime & Sand only; & this I assure you is no slight Consideration; for I have seen some brick Houses so infested wth. these Devils that a Man had better lived in a Barne than in one of them.

Mason on Hair 
I send you all the Hair I have except a little I kept in Case we shou’d have any small Job to do. Melford tells me there is 18 Bushels of it. [Presumably horsehair, destined for use in reinforcing the plaster used on interior walls. Eighteen bushels seems like a paltry amount, as in a 1787 letter to George Mason, Junior, the elder Mason advises him to obtain “about 150 Bushells; but you had better get a good deal more, as there will be 50, or 60 Bushels wanted for yr. Brother Thomson.”]

Alexander Henderson was born in Glasgow, Scotland. In 1756, he immigrated to Virginia and settled in Colchester, Virginia, becoming a neighbor and eventually friend of George Mason.

Bricks in an 18th century slave quarter at Boone's Plantation, SC.
Henderson served in the Virginia militia during the American Revolution. He represented Fairfax County in the Virginia House of Delegates 1783–1784 and Prince William County 1789–1790. With George Mason, he was a delegate to the Mount Vernon Conference in 1785 which led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He also served as a vestryman at Pohick Church and a magistrate of Fairfax and Prince William Counties.

In 1787, Henderson moved to Dumfries, Virginia, where his home still stands, presumably because he followed George Mason’s advice on bricks and mortar. In Dumfries, Henderson opened a store with additional outlets eventually opening in Colchester, Occoquan, and Alexandria. This led to Alexander Henderson becoming known at the “father of the American chain store.”

Besides giving birth to the chain store concept, Henderson was the father of Archibald Henderson, the longest-serving Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, who served from 1820 to 1859.

In his will, George Mason appoints Alexander Henderson as one of the five “good friends” directed to help divide his estate after his death. The other members of that committee were “the Revd. Mr. James Scott, the Revd. Mr. Lee Massey, Mr. John West Junr. [and] Colo. George Washington.” 

salmon brick* A soft, imperfectly fired brick having a reddish-orange color.

Rutland, Robert A., ed. The Papers of George Mason 1725-1792. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 1970. 
"Salmon Brick.", n.d. Web. 25 July 2014.

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