A not so long time ago and in our own galaxy, interior plaster was king and drywall was considered a second rate product, but that changed in a big way fast. In the 1950s, you could hear terms like “button” board and “hardwall” on virtually every project. Drywall was not taken seriously. But, after the span of a single decade, plasterers stopped laughing when drywall became the dominant finish. Did interior plasterers just give up without a fight? No, they fought and spent money on marketing plans to regain market share. If you think that failure was inevitable, consider that today interior plaster is still more popular in Europe than drywall.
The post-World War II era created a housing boom like this country had never seen before. Builders wanted less costly, faster construction, the tract home was the revolution and drywall was a natural fit. Plastering contractors had to do something to prevent erosion of their market share. In California, a marketing firm conducted research to devise a strategy to preserve market share against the drywall invasion. Through interviews and surveys, they learned homeowners did not seem to appreciate the benefit of lath and plaster. A marketing plan was established based on some very basic assumptions about the difference between plaster and drywall.
Plaster was harder and more durable than drywall.
Plaster had better sound attenuation than drywall.
It was believed that if the home buyer knew the difference between drywall and plaster, they would demand plaster every time. The easy test method that anyone could try was to “knock on the wall.”
The home builder promoted quality, as per his advertisements, and the plasterers would help with promotional items like signs and brochures to display at the model homes to demonstrate that they used lath and plaster, not drywall.
The campaign went so far as to include radio and newspaper advertisements. The catch phrase “Knock on the Wall” is still remembered by many in the trades and it was pushed hard for a few years during sporting events like professional baseball.
Home buyers walking through a tract home are not going to demand plaster or pay extra for it. Did anyone really believe that potential buyers would walk out on a home sale because it did not have lath and plaster or buy a home because it did?
While builders promote quality, at the end of the day, they demand cheaper and faster turnover. Drywall was cheaper and faster to install. The home builders also learned quickly that buyers only paid more for upgraded appliances and fixtures, not plaster walls.
Plasterers had exteriors (stucco) to work on and the housing market was booming, so the loss of interior plaster work was not really critical-they still had a lot of work.
Manufacturers of interior plaster were just as concerned about drywall. They came up with a solution, skim coat or veneer plaster. It could be put up faster than drywall and would save time and money compared to traditional lath and plaster. It must have seemed to manufacturers that interior plaster was about to be saved. Alas no. Was it a lack of skilled workers with trowels? No, we had thousands of trained and skilled plasterers. So why did it fail to capture the market in America?
I found the primary cause for the new skim coat plaster failure from the 1960s when I was remodeling my home a few years back. I used a veneer skim coat plaster on my home and my father offered to come over and help. He and my uncle, old time plasterers, were in the heart of the transition from genuine lath and plaster to drywall. They often talked about “cheap drywall” and how it ruined the industry. As we started to spread the veneer plaster, my father asked, “What is this stuff?” He had a sudden recollection and exclaimed “this is the stuff they created to compete with drywall back in the ’60s,” in an irritated voice. He went on to explain that this was an imitation for real lath and plaster and, in his day, they refused to use it. He also noted how the material did not work like the real finish or putty coats of his day. It was not as friendly to work with. What would have happened if they had embraced the skim coat plaster? Would history be different?
I love plastering and have nothing but the utmost respect for the trade and the great plasterers out there, but cutting off our noses to spite our faces is just not smart business.
The fallout from this transitional era may have had longer lasting repercussions that many of us are not fully aware of. Is it possible a cultural change occurred back then and the effects are still being felt today? The wall and ceiling industry prior to the 1960s was more contractor-driven. Standards, codes and even products were all centered around the contractor’s needs. Consider that the manufacturers developed a new plaster to “save” interior plastering and it was rejected. The innovative skim coat plaster system was developed to be competitive in cost, faster in application and to provide an abuse resistant wall. The system was dubbed as a sell-out or second cousin to real or genuine lath and plaster. The plastering contractors made the unfortunate stance of “all or nothing” and that’s what sunk lath and plaster.