The year was 1938, the average home price in the United States was $5,000, a new car cost $750, a loaf of bread was 9 cents and gas was 15 cents a gallon. The average annual salary for the American worker was $1,750 and the Federal Fair Labor Act was just adopted. Congress set minimum wage at 20 cents an hour, defined a work week as 40 hours and child labor was outlawed. The events of 1938 were notable as the underdog race horse named Seabiscuit beat War Admiral; Orson Welles’ infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast brought a nation the fear of aliens invading. In a twist of irony, Time magazine selected Adolf Hitler as its Man of the Year. Inventions like the ball point pen, the photocopier and freeze dried coffee made it hard for the launch of a new magazine to be even noticed. However, in 1938, Walls & Ceilings magazine was also born, first called Northwest Plastering Industries out of Seattle. Other lath and plaster magazines existed in 1938 as plastering was a major trade in that era. Only W&C magazine has survived since that time and it is quite an accomplishment.
In reviewing trade magazines from that era, it was surprising that lath and plaster was under attack from “substitutes” even back then. The industry fought back by forming the “Institute for Good Plastering.” The goal was to preserve market share against competing products and prevent shoddy work at low prices from destroying a good industry. Sound familiar? Even the trade associations were under close scrutiny and the U.S. Attorney General considered the elimination of trade associations but judiciously opted for more strict enforcement of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act as the solution. It is clear that competition was intense, quality of workmanship was an ongoing issue, prices were too low and wages were considered to be too high (the more I read, the more it sounds like not much has changed in 75 years). However, we know a lot has changed in the last 75 years of lath and plastering.
Most notably, lath and plastering contractors were more than abundant in those days. As a young man, I was told that the lath and plastering contractors once controlled the project costs and schedule. After reading the periodicals of 1938, I am not so sure that was completely true. Article after article recounts how lath and plastering contractors continually would cave under pressures from the general contractor in an effort to secure work; pushing prices downward and accepting lower standards of workmanship were of great concern. An article from 1939 in the California Plasterer titled “For Young Men” was eye opening for me. The author recounts an incident of a long movie line at 9 a.m. filled with young men. He found out it was the second line of the day for them, as they stood in the employment line earlier only to quit by a quarter to nine. He was a bit aghast at how they seem to give up so soon. He apparently felt that most of society was labeling them as the non-achiever generation. He blamed church, government hand-outs and a decaying structured home life for the failures of this apathetic American generation. The author noted, “What is the reaction of this idle young upon seeing entertainment which depicts lavish parties and private yachts, squandering of personal fortunes on riotous living, glorifying gangsters and otherwise placing a premium on the sordid?” With specific regard to our industry, the author continues, “It is stated reliably that the average age of the skilled laborer in the building trades and construction industry is beyond 45 years. In many localities employers are seriously concerned over the future.” As I read on, I could not help but think the article seemed as appropriate for today as it did in 1939.
75 YEARS OF LATH AND PLASTER
It is always helpful to look back to see what changes occurred and maybe what will help guide us in the future. While the changes in plastering from 1938 to 1975 were certainly impressive, the changes from 1975 to 2013 are more radical and dramatic for the plastering industry. Wood lath to gypsum lath was a significant change, and gypsum plaster to gypsum drywall was certainly industry changing, as well. However, the advent of EIFS and related inventions, such as foam shapes and acrylics over cement basecoats, have an even more profound effect on the industry. Consider other innovations like liquid applied water-resistive barriers, polymer basecoats and mesh to virtually eliminate cracking in stucco and it becomes hard pressed to say the last few decades have not been the most dramatic in the plastering industry.
One plaster invention that cannot be overlooked in the last 75 years is the introduction of the plaster pump. They first appeared in production work beginning in the late 1950s. These large piston-pump machines accelerated production rates for plasterers. Like Paul Bunyan with his axe, he was no match for a skilled man with a chainsaw. The hawk and trowel eventually gave way to the plaster pump as production rates for basecoat plaster application became unattainable on a “yards per man” as compared to hand tool work. The ratio of completed yards per man virtually doubled production, even with large “gun” crews, with as many as eleven men, the production possible was amazing by the mid-’70s. While quotas were illegal on union projects, the average gun crew would routinely scratch coat 2,500 square yards (22,500 square feet) or brown coat 1,500 square yards (13,500 square feet) per day. This high production did not just happen overnight. The plastering contractor and even manufacturers had to overcome challenges and tackle a learning curve of running a high volume machine. Necessity being the mother of invention was most evident in the early 1960s, when these high pressure plaster pumps were first introduced in Southern California on tract homes. The homes were all open stud framing; the new plaster “guns” were so powerful they would blow holes in the relatively thin asphalt saturated black Kraft building paper. To solve the problem, manufacturers of the paper made it more tear resistant, a little thicker, which in turn produced a tougher and more water-resistant paper. They labeled the product as “gun grade” paper. Inventions born out of a real necessity are always the best.
The most recent and unspoken change in recent years for the plastering contractor may be the overall liability of the lathing and plastering contractor. The lath and plastering operation is unique to other crafts: the profits are often much higher. However, this comes with call backs and risks that trump other trades. This fact has forced many wall and ceiling contractors to consider dropping plastering from their service portfolio.
The last few decades have also seen the birth and explosion of interior, Venetian-style plaster. This is not the generic interior lath and plaster of a lost era but a specialized plaster. Typically reserved for more expensive or elaborate wall and ceiling finishes, it has created a slight rift in our industry. The old “tried-and-true” plasterers find the artistic plastering a bit too “sissified” and the newer, more artistic specialty plasterer finds the old school guys to be relics of the past. I personally respect the old guys for the knowledge, skill and hard work they exhibit; but I also admire the more artistic plasterers for innovation, creativity and imagination. They both have a place in our industry.
What will the next 75 years bring? I am sure I have similar concerns as the author from the 1938 article as they climbed out of the Great Depression: we need to stay positive, and give our young people something to aspire to and hope for. I also suspect that there will be some dramatic changes and yet, so much will be the same: prices being pushed down, quality of work a concern and where will the next generation of workers come from? I imagine that someone will look at our wage rate and prices of homes and think, “Boy, what they made was so cheap back then.” I suspect, and sincerely hope, the price for a gallon of gas will be irrelevant as a new source of renewable energy will have been well established for decades, and gasoline a distant memory. Homes will likely be so energy efficient that heating and cooling costs will not even factor into household budgets.
In 1975, I remember telling my father that I wanted to explore the more ornamental side of plastering with regard to rocks and theme work. He told me that was not real plastering and he doubted there would be a future in that type of work. Keep that mind open, at least for the next 75 years.