The first bricks made in California were adobe bricks for homes
and buildings by the early Spanish and Mexican settlers. These
bricks were made of mud and straw, shaped into large blocks by
wooden molds, and sun dried. Many adobe buildings are still standing
today, such as those found in many of the California missions and
adobe homes. The adobe bricks shown below were made in 1817
by Indian labor for Don Domingo Carrillo's home in Santa Barbara.
During the Spanish period and up to 1832, burned bricks were used at Mission Dolores in San Francisco,
the Presidio in San Francisco, Mission San Luis Rey, and Rancho Guajome Adobe in San Diego County, and
probably elsewhere. These were handmade bricks, formed by mixing soil and water, and burned over a
fire in a bonfire pit or an oven. They were crude, poor quality, and usually underfired bricks. In 1794,
fired bricks and tile were made using an oven at the San Francisco Presidio. Also called Spanish
bricks, they were thinner than standard bricks and larger, measuring 10 to 18 inches in length and 7 to 10 inches
in width. These early bricks were used mainly in fireplaces, ovens, fountains, irrigation systems,
The first kiln-fired common bricks in California were made in 1847 by George Zins at Sutterville,
Sacramento County, by Colton and others of the Mormon Battalion at San Diego,
and by Dickenson and Lawrey in Monterey. These were shaped in wooden molds, usually holding
up to six bricks at a time. Red-burning clays suitable for brick were found in surficial deposits in valley
fill and flood plains of rivers and streams. The bricks were fired in field kilns
using wood as fuel. Field kilns, or scoves, were rectangular stacks of brick with an
interior chamber for the fire and openings at the top for venting the hot gas. Bricks fired
in this type of kiln ranged from uneven overfired to underfired bricks depending on their distance
from the fire. The kilns were rebuilt with each firing, so they were not permanent structures,
which facilitated their use on construction sites.
Philander Colton and the others of the Mormon Battalion began making bricks in March of 1847 and fired them on May 28, 1847, in Old Town San Diego. These first bricks were used in lining wells throughout the town. At the end of June 1847, the Mormon brickmakers built the first brick building for a courthouse, a replica of which stands today on the Old Town plaza.
Another brick house was built sometime after June 1847 (specific date is unknown) by Gallant Duncan Dickenson and Amos Lawrey in Monterey. The bricks were fired in a kiln where the high school stands today. The amazing thing about this brick house is that it is still standing on Decatur St., and thus has been honored as being the "first brick house in California."
Zins fired over 40,000 brick in 1847 (specific date is unknown), and 100,000 the following year.
The first 30,000 of these red bricks went into what was reported to be the first brick house in
California at Sutterville in 1847. The remaining 10,000 was used by John Sutter in the construction of a large
oven at Sutters Fort. Some of the bricks were stamped "G.Z." for George Zins initials.
Sutter kept two of the bricks as mementoes in his
window. That made him the first brick collector in California!
In the fall of 1848, Zins built his two-story brick house on a block
of land given to him by Sutter, bounded by M, N, Front, and Second streets,
Sacramento. Bricks were hauled from his kiln at Sutterville by ox
teams. While George Zins laid the bricks, his wife made the mortar and
carried the hod. Completed in early 1849, at a cost of $40,000, this was the
first brick house in Sacramento. It was later known as the Bininger House,
the Green Tea Hotel, the Empire Hotel, and the Pioneer Hotel.
Up to 1854, bricks were made and fired right on or near the property of the
building project, provided there was enough suitable clay. Many building
contractors doubled as brickmakers or hired brickmakers to supply bricks on
site. This was true for many of the early brick buildings in the Mother Lode
towns along Highway 49, though some bricks were shipped by wagons from
Stockton and Sacramento. By 1854, Sacramento had 500 brick buildings. Just
within the city limits, there were 30 brickyards containing 40 brick machines and capable of
producing more than 250,000 bricks per day. Some of the early brickmakers were
P. Harnett, Samuel Carlisle, P.B. Cornwall, F. Burke,
Polk and Todd, Pettit and Queen, Fountain Brothers, and Callahan and Ryan.
In 1854, John Ryan produced brick for the Sacramento and San Francisco
markets from his brickyard at 13th and Y streets in Sacramento. This
was believed to be the first commercial brickyard in California. He employed
20 and produced 2,000,000 bricks per year.
In 1852 Capt. Jesse Hunter of the Mormon Battalion made the first bricks from
his kiln located at Broadway and 2nd streets in Los Angeles. These bricks
were used in the first brick building in Los Angeles at Main and
Soon afterwards, individuals opened brickyards wherever there was a
local clay deposit and demand for buildings. Clay pits were dug by
shovels and scrapers. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s nearly every
California town boasted of building their first brick building.
Brick also became in greater demand after fires reduced whole towns of
wooden buildings to ashes.
In 1870, the Patent Brick Company began manufacturing pressed,
Roman, and fancy bricks near San Rafael, Marin County. This company
claimed to have the first Hoffman kiln built in the United States.
Most of the larger California brick manufacturers used the
Hoffman continuous kilns for their rapid and efficient firing of bricks.
In 1878, even the convicts at San Quentin Prison were employed in
making bricks in their own brickyard, producing 6,500,000 that year.
In 1880, there were 50 brick manufacturers in the state, employing
850 men, and producing 63,400,000 common brick and 1,140,000 pressed
brick and firebrick. In 1881, brick production increased to over
Because a large number of firebrick were imported reportedly as ballast
from countries such as England, Scotland, and Australia, there was little
incentive for the local manufacture of firebrick. The market for common brick
was far more lucrative for local brickmakers. However, the first firebrick made
in California was probably that of Andrew Steiger in 1863 at his pottery works
in San Jose, and he was followed two years later by N. Clark in Sacramento. Good
fire clay deposits were found in Alameda, Contra Costa, Placer, Amador, Calaveras,
and Riverside counties. The best firebricks were made by the Carnegie Brick and
Pottery Company, Gladding, McBean and Company, Steiger Pottery, Los Angeles
Pressed Brick Company, St. Louis Fire Brick Company, Ione Fire Brick Company,
Harbison-Walker Refractories, Livermore Fire Brick Company, EMSCO Refractories,
Vitrifrax Corporation, and the Stockton Fire Brick Company.
In the 1890s, the Gladding, McBean and Company, known for their
ornamental terra cotta, sewer pipe, and tile, began producing bricks
from their fire clay pits at Lincoln, Placer County. For over the next
60 years, they purchased and operated a number of major brick plants
around the state and became the largest supplier of face brick.
The Los Angeles Pressed Brick Company dominated the face brick market in
southern California and, in 1916, established a large refractory products
plant at Alberhill in Riverside County. The Stockton Fire Brick Company,
which had 90 percent of the firebrick market on the Pacific Coast, established
in 1930 the largest refractory products plant in the west at Pittsburg in
Contra Costa County.
It was around 1900 that the independent brickmaker with his small crew of laborers was forced out by the larger brick companies. Many of these independent brickmakers were also forced out by encroaching neighborhoods that brought complaints of smoke and pollution produced by the kilns. Small brick firms attempted to organize trusts to protect their market turf and control falling brick prices. As rising real estate values deemed valuable clay deposits insignificant, the brick companies were forced to close or locate their operations further away from the cities that depended on their product. This economic squeeze in the brick industry took its toll by the loss of a large number brick manufacturers in the first two decades of the 1900s.
California did not have great paving brick manufacturers like other states mainly because of the scarcity of good vitrified clay deposits. High-quality pavers were shipped from producers outside of California, such as the Denny-Renton Company in Washington. The first paving brick in California was probably that made by the Los Angeles Pressed Brick Company in Santa Monica in 1906. These pavers were shipped throughout the state. Paving bricks were also made by Mulford-Burke in Los Angeles, Atlas in San Francisco, California Brick Company in Decoto, and the Stockton Fire and Enamel Brick Company in Stockton. Poor-quality paving bricks ended up being used as building bricks.
Major suppliers of building bricks included the Dickey Clay Manufacturing Company,
Pacific Clay Products Company, Los Angeles Brick Company, Port Costa Brick
Company, Simons Brick Company, Western Brick Company, Craycroft Brick Company,
Richmond Pressed Brick Company, Remillard Brick Company, L. P. McNear Brick
Company, Union Brick and Tile Company, and many others.
From 1920 to 1980, due to stiff competition, many of the smaller brick companies
merged with the larger companies. From Los Angeles came the Pacific
Clay Products, Inc., which acquired the Pacific Sewer Pipe Company in Los Angeles
and N. Clark & Sons in Alameda. The Gladding, McBean & Company from Lincoln,
California, acquired the Stockton Fire Brick Company, the San Jose Brick Company, and
one the largest brick companies in the west, the Los Angeles Pressed Brick Company.
During this period also we saw the closing of Remillard, Dickey, Simons, and many
other large brick plants when the use of building bricks was declining in the
market place. Earthquakes required changes in structural products and building codes
that eliminated some companies. Increased use of reinforced concrete also had
displaced bricks in the building market.
From 1980 to 2000, the surviving brick manufacturers included Kaiser Refractories,
Gladding, McBean Company, Pacific Clay Products, Western Brick Co. (Harbison-Walker),
Port Costa, Craycroft, Muddox, Higgins, Castaic, Atkinson, and others as refractory, ornamental,
veneer, and paving bricks continued to be in demand. Among them is one of the oldest brick plants
in California, owned by the McNear Brick & Block on the shores of Marin County, which has been
in operation since 1885.
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Gurcke, Karl. "Bricks and Brickmaking." University of Idaho Press, Moscow, ID, 1987.
Hector, Susan M. "Mission Masonry at Rancho Guajome Adobe." The Journal of San Diego History, v. 45, no. 4, Fall 1999.
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Mosier, Dan L. and Williams, Earle E. "History of Tesla, A California Coal Mining Town." Mines Road Books, Fremont, CA, 1998.
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Suggested reference for this web page using Kate L. Turabian's A Manual for Writers:
Mosier, Dan L., History of Brickmaking in California, 2003, http://calbricks.netfirms.com/brickhistory.html (accessed put-date-here).
Comments or questions are welcomed.
Please send email to Dan Mosier at firstname.lastname@example.org.