Thursday, July 3, 2014

Investigating the Mikveh Bricks

Finding the bottom of the mikveh last week was exciting in and of itself, but this week’s expansion of the excavation to find the edges of the mikveh have provided some crucial information. As we uncovered the parts of the mikveh damaged by the house’s demolition, the brick maker’s marks were revealed, allowing us to further research the origin of the white enameled bricks lining it.

The floor of the mikveh with its white enameled brick lining on display.
Note the drain at its southern edge and the water valve to the west.

The bricks were made by Sayre & Fisher Co., a brick making firm founded in 1850 by James J. Sayre and Peter Fisher in Sayreville, New Jersey. The Raritan River along which the Sayre & Fisher factory was located was home to eight other brickyards, though none as large as Sayre & Fisher. By 1913 (the year after the building housing the mikveh was sold to the Hebrew Ladies’ Society), they were producing 178,000,000 bricks per year. The company continued growing until it finally closed in the early 1970s.

The maker's mark of Sayre & Fisher Co. displayed on one of the bricks from the mikveh.

The back side of one of the mikveh bricks with the factory location of Sayreville stamped onto it.

An 1895 catalog of their front, enameled, and common building bricks contains an example of the buff-bodied, white enameled bricks that line the mikveh at Strawbery Banke, though the maker’s mark is slightly different. This is not surprising, as the design of these marks often changed over time, sometimes providing an excellent way of dating components of archaeological sites.

Considering the popularity and number of bricks produced by Sayre & Fisher Co. in the early 20th century, it is not surprising that the people who built the mikveh chose them as their brick supplier. Their company catalog is peppered with the testimonies of dozens of satisfied customers. Judging from the way our mikveh bricks look after surviving a demolition and about half a century underground, it seems like those reviews from 120 years ago were pretty accurate!

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