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Plastering Across the Ages – A Little Bit Of Plastering History

Plastering Across The Ages

I came across a post on Twitter the other day that grabbed my attention. It read …

“In the Middle Ages Plasterers used to put ale into plaster to make it more pliable - they also helped themselves to the ale, hence the expression 'plastered’.” 

Apart from thinking I had been born in the wrong era I like a bit of history so I decided to have a look into the history of plastering to see what it might have been like if I had been a plasterer during another time. This is what I found out.

The Prehistoric Plasterers

Mud Hut at Monument Valley - Photo by Sarah Nichols

It looks as though plastering goes back further than I thought as there is some evidence that people in Jordan were carrying out a primitive form of plastering as long ago as 7,500 BC. They would cover their shelters made of twigs or reed with mud to strengthen, protect and decorate it. 

The materials have of course changed but the reason why people plaster and render their homes has remained the same for all these years.

 

The Egyptian Plasterers

Image from the British Museum

I wasn't surprised to learn that it was the Egyptians who discovered gypsum. They also calcined it to produce effectively what is one of the main plastering ingredients we use today.

Gypsum is a mineral rock similar to lime it can be heated (calcined) and crushed into a fine powder which when mixed with water produces a  fine mouldable material that sets smooth and hard. It is quite fragile on it's own so the Egyptians mixed it with lime to coat the walls of their tombs, pyramids and palaces.

The smooth surface this plaster coating produced allowed them to easily decorate the walls in true Egyptian style. Amazingly this ancient plaster is still present in the Egyptian tombs today and is also still as tough.  The British museum holds many specimens of it which you can view here.

 

The Greek Plasterers

Picture by Patrick Denker

The Greeks were also big plastering fans and the word plaster actually comes from the ancient greek word meaning to “daub on”. 

They were also the founders of stucco which they used throughout the inside and outside of their temples. Stucco is a mix of lime and sand traditionally used on the inside and outside of buildings and it has been the main plaster material used right up until the 19th century.

You don’t have to go far in Greece to see some of this traditional greek architecture still in existence especially in some of the old towns.

 

The English Plasterers

Photo by Thomas Quine

Wattle and daub was the plastering technique carried out in the UK for many years. It was used on timber framed buildings to create the walls and is very effective.

Reeds or wooden strips were woven together between the frame which was called the wattle and it was then daubed with a sticky substance such as wet clay, soil or even animal dung.

This sticky substance was also often mixed with straw for added strength. Devonshire cobbing is a similar technique that is still in use.

Wattle and daub plastering is still present on some of our historic buildings that are in existence in Briton today.

It is also thought to have been the idea behind the lath and plaster technique used on internal walls that came later in the 18th century.

 The Roman Plasterers

Image by Aine Flanagan - Littlecotte Roman Villa

The Romans were very decorative and creative with their wall plastering, mosaic floors and elaborate plastered architecture. They introduced the lime based plasters and renders to Britain.

Traditional wattle and daub round houses started to be replaced by luxurious roman villas with red roofs and lime plastered walls. Towns and cities were built magnificently decorated with statutes, pillars and fine artwork.

The walls of their buildings were also plastered internally for their elaborate artwork decoration and stucco mouldings were very common. Some of this architecture still exists today in many of our towns and cities.

The nearest place to me that has some great examples of Roman architecture still in existence is York but there are many other similarly historic places throughout Britain.

The Medieval Plasterers

Medieval Cooking - Photo by Hans Splinter

It was not until the middle ages that plastering in Britain really took off. Open fires and timber buildings covered in reed were still very common and not a great mix so fires were a big problem for medieval Britain.

Plaster had started to become known throughout Europe for it’s ability to protect against fire so in the late part of the 12th Century Henry Fitz Alwyn the first mayor of London ordered that all cook shop sites be plastered.

In 1212 there was a huge fire which destroyed many buildings along the Thames and spread onto London bridge. The bridge had recently been rebuilt in stone so it survived but houses that had been built along it which were supposed to help pay for it’s maintenance were all destroyed. 

King John endorsed Henry Fitz Alwyns order by declaring that shop owners around the Thames and London bridge must whitewash and plaster inside and out any house covered in reed or rush within 8 days or it was to be demolished. He further ordered that all houses in which brewing or baking is done be plastered within and without so that they be safe from fire.

In that same ordinance a fixed rate of wages was made. For whitewashers and mud plasterers it was to be 3d per day with keep or 4d without. According to the Bank of England inflation calculator this was about £23.15 or £30.93 in todays money which is very low in comparison to a plasterer today.  Maybe this suggests that the trade had not been recognised as a skill  at this stage or was the cost of living a lot less than it is today?. This could well be the topic for another post.

In 1254 following a trip to paris King Henry III became quite enthused by the plaster being used there. He was said to have admired the whiteness and firmness of the walls so he introduced gypsum plaster to England and this is where the name plaster of paris came from.

A contract for plastering dated 1317 exists where Adam the plasterer a citizen of London agrees with Sir John De Bretagne Earl of Richmond to find “plaster of paris” wherewith to plaster his hall wall and befittingly within and without.

13th Century Plastering

During the mid 13th century additives such as hair for reinforcement and malt, urine, beer, milk or eggs were used for plasticity. Ox or cow hair was preferred as the longer the hair the better it was. Although horse hair was also used which was sometimes mixed with the longer ox hair but it did produce a lesser quality plaster.

14th Century Plastering

Photo by Rictor Norton & David Allen

By the 14th century decorative plasterwork in the form of pargeting and terracotta had found it’s way to England although it did not really become fashionable until later on in the 15th and 16th centuries. 

Pargeting in those days was a form of decorative external render that was used to decorate the exterior of timber framed buildings. Patterns were moulded or modelled into the lime putty or plaster used which produced a very ornate look. Terracotta didn't really get used in plasterwork but instead was used to create ornaments and pots.

 

15th and 16th Century Plastering

During the 15th and 16th Century the roman techniques of plastering together with fresco painting were studied and carried out in grand houses throughout Britain.

They used stucco duro which is a mixture of air slaked lime and marble dust with a little gypsum in order to help it set. Excavations of Henry VII’s palace in Nonsuch discovered some lovely stucco decorations that are still in very good condition. 

Hampton Court Photo by Paul Hudson

During this time decorative plaster really became very fashionable. Plasterers and pargetors became of such importance that in 1501 a separate guild and company in London was formed known as the Plaisterers Guild. 

It was important that the tradesmen were master craftsman so a charter was made by Charles II which forbade any person from carrying on simultaneously the trades of mason bricklayer and plasterer and also forbade any person to exercise or carry on the art of plasterer without having been apprenticed seven years.

Search days as described in the charter were annually appointed up to 1832 and fines were inflicted upon offenders for using bad materials and bad workmanship. Maybe this is something that should still be existence today!

Painters started to become concerned that the plasterers were taking over their trade so an Act was passed forbidding plasterers from painting in the city of London restricting them to a few distemper colours only. It did not do the painters any good though as painting was on the decline and white plastered ceilings moved into fashion.

Plasterers therefore became the supreme decorators of the time.

Other techniques that emerged during this era developed by venetian skilled workers was Armouring and the decorative scagliola marble effect pillars.

17th Century Plastering

The Long Gallery, Library Blickling Hall - Photo By Martin Pettit

During the 17th Century Plastering continued to be the height of interior design fashion. More elaborate plaster ornamentation was being carried out and it was becoming more widespread throughout Britain.

Stucco marble and decorative scagliola marble effect pillars started to become popular as did the influence of Grinling Gibbons. Gibbons specialised in plaster sculptures using wires and twigs to create flowers and his highly skilled work became much sort after.

18th Century Plastering

Kenwood House (1766-74) James And Robert Adams - Photo By Steve Cadman

The 18th century saw the introduction of oil mastics and the patented Adams cement that was used as a rendering on the front of a number of buildings in Bedford Square and other prestigious buildings that the Adam’s brothers were responsible for.

It also saw the internal wall plastering technique of lath and plaster and Robert Adam’s flare for plasterwork in interior design became very popular during this period. His designs of plastered fireplaces, mouldings and ceilings were very much sought after resulting in the style being named after him.

 

19th Century Plastering

During the 19th century portland cement was introduced to plaster mix and Augustine Sackett patented Sackett board which was the first plasterboard.

Sacket board was a thin layer of plaster of paris between felt paper and it began to replace the traditional lath and plaster technique that had been carried out previously.

20th Century plastering

During the later part of the 19th Century and the early 20th century hydrated gypsum was developed which reduced the drying time of plaster significantly from a few days to a few hours. A number of patent plasters were produced using this method and interior design moved into the art deco era.

Plastering Today

That brings us up to date and it appears that the trade has changed very little over the years. We have better materials now but the techniques and the basic tools used have not changed very much at all. 

It was nice to learn that our trade was highly respected amongst the monarchy and it is clear that plastering has played a key part in interior design across the different centuries. 

It also looks as though mixing ale into the plaster was in fact correct but whilst I have no doubt that some of the plasterers did drink some of it I could not find any reference to the word "plastered" having come from it although it fits perfectly! 

So we don't get any ale to mix into our plaster anymore but would I really have liked to have been a plasterer in the middle ages? No I don't think I would.