Bricks in Nauvoo; or, A Sleepover at Willard Richards? House

By September 21, 2013

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The Ubiquitious Nauvoo Brick Souvenir

By necessity, early Mormons were builders. It’s easy to forget, retrospectively, how much sheer labor went into the communities that early Latter-day Saints, time and again, built from the ground up. Temple building is one of the more conspicuous form of construction activity, but with each relocation Latter-day Saints also faced anew the more mundane labors of improving land, building homes, outbuildings, ditches and canals, fences, roads–in other words, of generating a basic domestic and civic infrastructure. Not unlike many other roving families in early America, Mormons continually reconstructed their material world from the ground up.

This perpetual project changed significantly in the 1840s, when early Mormon settlers in Nauvoo (formerly Commerce, Illinois) found oxidized clay in the soil under their feet, a discovery that opened up an whole new mode of construction. Occasionally in the early settlement, and then routinely between 1842 and the time they left Nauvoo, many Saints built their dwellings and other structures out of rich red Nauvoo brick. And more and more, this gave Nauvoo and appearance and an atmosphere unlike previous settlements.

Admittedly, brick buildings were only a part of Nauvoo?s collective architecture. Immigrants used ?every available building material? to build lean-tos, log homes, frame houses, and even ?wattle? homes built from willows woven and caked with mud. Others, poorer still, lived for extended periods in tents and makeshift shelters. At its apogee, Nauvoo was home to around two thousand buildings, approximately 350 of which were brick. Yet as a medium brick played an important part in defining the constitution of the city. It fueled a robust sector of Nauvoo?s economy, affected the way that Nauvoo was perceived by outsiders, and had an important bearing on the way Latter-day Saints experienced their lives and their community.

carthage stars

Nauvoo brick buildings utilized iron hardware for reinforcement, similar to this star shaped brace on the exterior wall of Carthage Jail.

Brick offered relative security in a world where living spaces were far less buffered from the outside elements than they are for most today. It sealed off noise and wind and kept heat better than other structures could. Brick was not invulnerable: tornados repeatedly toppled the Seventies Hall while it was under construction, and brick walls required reinforcement. (The stars and other metal decor prominent on the exterior walls of many Nauvoo brick buildings were actually functional: they connected to iron rods that helped secure the brick and mortar inward against the structure.) Still, brick homes and other buildings offered the best availably measure of permanence. Of the roughly 350 brick structures constructed by Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, 49 survived until restoration efforts began in the 1970s.

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Willard Richards’ Home, now the Willard Richards Inn

Incidentally, one of the surviving structures was the home of Willard Richards, which is now one of only a few commercialized structures in historical Nauvoo, and is currently home to the Willard Richards Inn. As I saw firsthand during a stay there last week, the structure has been converted to a roomy bed and breakfast. After its completion sometime in 1844, the house served as a locus for prayer meetings and for the gatherings of the Anointed Quorum. This fact now serves, for better or for worse, as something of a selling point to Mormon tourists.

The use of brick as a building material also had important implications for labor. Immigrants arriving in Nauvoo desperately needed employment, and many of them brought the skills necessary for Nauvoo?s up-tempo construction industry. By the mid-1840s, Nauvoo supported seven brickyards and with them the interrelated trades of bricklayers, lime burners, masons, carpenters, hardware merchants and so on. Despite the lack of currency and the lopsided shape of Nauvoo?s urban economy?heavy emphasis on construction, but little on trade or manufacturing?bricks provided a important economic stimulus that affected many dimensions of life.

Brick also had socioeconomic and cultural significance. As Richard Bushman and others have shown, the way that early Americans constructed their homes was a form of self-fashioning. The materials and arrangements of homes and other buildings could manifest the owners? sense of taste, respectability, and social standing [2]. Consequently, brick offered Nauvoo residents an avenue to dignity that many had not had before. It also offered the community as a whole the prospect of refinement. On this reading, Nauvoo?s public buildings, like the Cultural and Seventies Halls (and certainly the Temple), were not simply functional; they were symbolic assertions of a robust social character. In Nauvoo the Saints sought a both a pious and refined civic culture, and often brick provided a suitable architectural medium. Accounts from visitors to Nauvoo and residents themselves convey the sense of social standing and civic dignity that brick brought to the community.

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LDS Church’s ‘Brick Yard’ Exhibition in Nauvoo

As it does at its other prominent historical sites, in Nauvoo the LDS Church uses immersion in material culture to reconstitute some of the lived experiences of contemporary Mormons in the city. At its exhibits it recreates children?s games, domestic and craft practices, and many of the nineteenth century trades: the work of blacksmiths, wainwrights, bootmakers, gunsmiths, apothecaries, printers, shopkeepers, and so on. It attempts to reconstitute the atmosphere of nineteenth century homes by using period furniture and original artifacts, where possible. Even the modern structures in Nauvoo, built to house its eager missionary force, generally echo the traditional style of Nauvoo, attempting to preserve something of the ambiance of what was once a lively and robust city.

 It is true that because only brick structures have survived, there is a tendency to imagine Nauvoo as a fully formed and manicured metropolis. In reality, even at its peak Nauvoo ?was still a young city, anxious to gain respectability as a city of promise but not yet mature enough to overcome its log cabin beginnings? [3]. Still, even in the nineteenth century bricks in Nauvoo reflected the onset of the most socially refined stage of community-building that Joseph Smith and his followers had yet experienced. In this sense, at least, they are appropriately the trademark souvenir for visitors to Nauvoo today.

_______

 

[1] See Glen M. Leonard, Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Brigham Young University Press, 2002), 125-131.

[2] See Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Knopf, 1992).

[3] Leonard, Nauvoo, 131.

 

Article filed under Cultural History Material Culture Reflective Posts


Comments

  1. Nice, Ryan. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — September 21, 2013 @ 8:07 pm

  2. This is fantastic. Growing up, my uncle lived in a house that he had built into the hill. It was partially underground and was quite dark but also very cool in the summer. Visits to his house always reminded how much it matters what your home is made of. This post made me think of those experiences.

    Comment by Amanda HK — September 21, 2013 @ 8:27 pm

  3. I really enjoyed that. Thanks, Ryan!

    Comment by J Stuart — September 22, 2013 @ 9:46 am

  4. I hadn’t realized that those stars were support structures. Makes sense.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 23, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

  5. This is a great post, Ryan. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — September 23, 2013 @ 5:12 pm

  6. Great post. Thanks.

    Comment by DF Martinez — September 24, 2013 @ 4:23 pm


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