A Change from Plaster to Drywall Changed Building History

Before World War II, the average home was customarily plastered through a meticulous process that required nailing thousands of feet of lath, wooden strips, to the ceiling and walls of every single room in the home. Once the lath was in place, it was then covered with a coarse layer of plaster. This first layer is referred to as the scratch coat. When the scratch coat was applied, the wet plaster squeezed through the gaps in the lath, securing it to the walls and ceiling. Several days later, when the first layer was dry, a second coat called the brown coat was then applied to make all the surfaces relatively flat. The brown coat had to then dry for several days as well. When this coat was finally dry, the last layer, the skim coat, was applied. The skim coat is a thin layer of white plaster that produces a smooth, finished surface.

This process could take weeks at best, but when weather is an added factor, it could very well take months. During this time of drying and applying plaster, no other work could be completed inside the house. Plasterwork had been done like this for centuries and there was no apparent reason to do anything different. All this changed, however, when World War II came along. When World War II came about, there was a desperate need for military structures such as barracks. In some cases, whole barracks were even required. With major shortages in labor and material, the U.S. government was frantic to find quicker and more cost effective ways to build. Since efficiency and practicality were more important than beauty, altering the way plaster was applied was an obvious first place to start. This is where the United States Gypsum Company came in. In 1916, this company came up with a building material made of gypsum. This material was squeezed between sheets of very tough paper.

Two decades passed and this innovative gypsum product called Sheetrock is slow to develop popularity. It was successfully used in most of the buildings at the Chicago’s World Fair in 1933-34, but this still didn’t do much for sales of the product. While this exposure could not make the difference in sales of this product, the urgent necessity of the war certainly made a difference.

The government soon came to appreciate that using Sheetrock did away with the need for the wood lath, many plaster coats, and countless days of plaster drying time. This led to the name drywall. Installation was much easier and quicker, completed by nailing up the 4X8 sheets of drywall, filling the nail holes, applying paper tape to cover joints, and a troweled texture coating to hide any imperfections.

This change was meant as a temporary solution to the shortages that the U.S. was experiencing during the war. However, this was most certainly not the case. Plaster never regained popularity as was expected. By the time the war was over, builders were used to slapping up drywall and having the convenience of time on their side. This made them very reluctant to go back to the relatively painful process of plaster. Before the war, the fact that Sheetrock could not be molded would have been a problem. But when the war ended, architecture was becoming more modern, and flat, smooth surfaces began to be preferred over the elaborate moldings of older tastes. One drawback that was recognized was the hollow cardboard sound of drywall, but it seemed a small price to pay for modern home builders and owners.

Sheetrock definitely provided a boom for post-war housing. Before WWII, the average house builder could build approximately 4 houses per year. Drywall made it possible for this number to dramatically increase. Some developers were known to pump out thousands of homes in just a few years when before it would have taken a lifetime career. They were also making more money on these houses then ever, because Sheetrock was so cheap. Sheetrock helped bring mass production to the building industry.