Edward Sterling (1834-1911) was the founder of a bonafide brick-making empire, based in St. Louis. Early in his life, his uncle Elisha was managing a steam furnace company in Cleveland. Looking to diversify the business in the mid 19th century, Elisha and his associate Ethan Rogers looked into brick manufacturing. Up to that time, brick production was mostly a process of forming clay into molds by hand and then kiln-firing in batches. This was also late into the industrial revolution, where underlying assumptions about labor and efficiency were challenged in almost every aspect of the economy.
Rogers invented and patented “a new and improved machine for molding and pressing brick by hydraulic pressure”. The first hydraulic brick machine was put into service in Cleveland in 1856; three years later it was sold to a manufacturer in Nashville, where eventually it was melted down for ordnance during the Civil War.
As a young man going his own way, Elisha’s nephew Edward had unsuccessfully tried his hand at running a lumber company. He then returned to Cleveland and secured a financial interest in the patent rights for Rogers’s hydraulic dry brick press. Edward acquired a second press and in 1860 moved that 33-ton, cast iron machine to Memphis. In 1860, this press produced 8 million bricks in 11 months.
When the Civil War interrupted his production in Memphis, Sterling established a plant in St. Louis, He leased a brickyard near the southeast corner of Chouteau and Mississippi streets (in what is now Lafayette Square) and began manufacturing in late April 1865. With the luck of being in the right place at the right time, the Civil War ended the following month, and a long process of physical reconstruction began.
The Sterlings’ family business soon attracted other investors, and in 1868 Hydraulic Press Brick Company was incorporated. Edward Sterling became Hydraulic’s first president. The company took over the buildings, equipment and machinery in use at the plant on Chouteau and Mississippi, and also acquired an interest in the rights of three patents: the Rogers hydraulic press; a novel design for a brick kiln; and another design for an improved “perpetual kiln.” Hydraulic’s annual production in 1868 amounted to around 5 million bricks, and 7 million the following year, which Sterling claimed was less than the demand.
The quality of this brick – heavy, dense, and strong – was proven in tests conducted by the government, which showed crush strength of a Hydraulic brick to be more than twice that of conventional handmade brick of the time. James Eads also performed tests and was sold on the solidity of the Hydraulic brick. With both the press and the kiln patented, this brick began selling itself. Hydraulic product was used in construction of Eads Bridge, the Bissell Point water treatment plant, the Anheuser-Busch brewery, and Chrysler and Manhattan Life buildings in New York.
By the end of 1872, the company had increased its throughput to nearly 18 million bricks a year. With 14 kilns and 2 brick presses, the plant could produce nearly 9,000 bricks per hour.
As the company yards followed the clay deposits, several moves west ensued. The works eventually resettled at Kingshighway, where it was located at the turn of the century. Hydraulic Press Brick by then was turning out over 100 million bricks per year, making it the largest brick company on Earth.