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The Humble Hod

Updated: May 15, 2023

Excerpted from The Chronicle, Vol. II No. 14, June 1940

By Joseph E. Sandford

About two thousand two hundred years ago, the Greek comic poet Diphilus wrote a comedy called The Brick-Carrier. Only two lines of it have survived. This is symbolic of the lack of interest in this lowly and seem­ingly unimportant occupation and the resultant scarcity of material about it.

The Greek dramatists thought of the mason's helper as a stumbling clown who provided humor by falling off ladders. His was the task of carrying the weight of a wall in bricks and mor­tar to the skilled artisan who set them. For us, he is the hod-carrier, and the basket, tray or other device which he generally carried upon his shoulder, we shall call the hod.

The Greek hod-carrier of Aristo­phanes' day (c. 400 B.C.) carried mor­tar in a pot. A survival of this prac­tice, as late as the First Century A.D., may be seen in a Pompeiian mural painting showing a plasterer with two low, wide-mouthed jars at his feet.

The Romans of the Second Century A.D. carried sand in a tall basket, called an AEro. One shown on Tra­jans' Column at Rome ( c. 113 A.D.) seems to be equipped with a hand­grasp near its lower edge, which would be useful in steadying it on the shoul­der. Mortar they carried in a small wooden trough called an Alveus and these were the prototypes of the mor­tar trays of the Middle Ages. In the Fourth Century A.D., the Romans carried bricks in the AEro. The Al­veus came down into French in the mortar tray called the Auge. The larger stones were carried by the aid of a forked stick carried on both shoulders. This was the Furca, which will be described later.

The basket hod was used in Fif­teenth-Century A.D. Persia. Unlike the Roman AEro, the Persian basket hod, as depicted by the artist Behzad in 1494, was long and low, in the shape of a half watermelon sliced lengthwise. These were used for carrying bricks, or, rested in rope slings, were pulled to the tops of walls. The Persians car­ried mortar in long wooden trays.

The basket hod does not seem to have been used in Medieval Europe. In the Eleventh Century, mortar hods, in the shape of a large scoop with a short handle, are pictured in a manuscript of Rabanus Mauras – De Ori­ginibus – dated 1023 A.D. From in­formation received from Mr. Rupert Waltram, a native of Bavaria, the hod­man of that part of Germany still uses a scoop-shaped wooden hod, lined with metal and fitted with a short pro­jecting handle.

The Medieval European hod-man carried a trough upon his shoulders. It was carved out of a single piece of wood. Some hods were turned in the shape of a bowl and both types were used for carrying bricks and mortar. By the early Fifteenth Cen­tury, the French saved wood and work by building a trough of five boards – the mason's auge, of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries.

Although the craft of the cooper was known in the First Century B.C., – and Pliny mentions the tub – staved and hooped containers received their greatest development during the Mid­dle Ages. The late Fourteenth-Century miniatures show large, two-"eared" tubs for mortar being raised by hoists, but it seems to have been left for the Northern Europeans of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries to use little tubs for hods.

Lifting the loaded hod from the ground to the shoulder was a back-breaking task. The Second-Century A.D. Romans, of Sens in France, used a tall four-legged table which held the hod waist-high or better while it was being filled. This hod-stand is found in Northern Italy and Central Ger­many in the Fourteenth Century, where it took the form of a tripod, and it survives in modern Bavaria. The wooden bowl or trough-shaped hods were firmly held by the top ends of the sticks which also served as legs. The tripod has the advantage of stand­ing well on uneven surfaces.

The V-shaped trough for holding rectangular stones or bricks was in use in the late Fourteenth Century, as a cradle for a hoist. It is pictured in the building of Babel, in Rudolf of Montfort's world chronicle, a manu­script of the period.

We have seen that the Romans rec­ognized the advantage of the long, low container, and that, in the Mid­dle Ages, a V-shaped trough was used for holding rectangular objects. The Romans also made use of the hod­stand. All these were factors which were to make the hod as we know it.

The word hod was probably in use in England by the time of Edward I (1272-1307), for one Richard Wit­bred, hodere, is mentioned as having been slain in "Colman Strete" in the city of London. But there is nothing to show that Richard was a mason's helper. The word hod has been said to be a form of "hold" – and was ap­plied to various containers.

The first recorded use of hod as a tray for mortar is found in Thomas Tusser's Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry printed in 1573, but there is no certainty of the type of hod intended. It was not until 1688 that the V-shaped trough on a staff, which later monopolised the word hod, makes its appearance unmistakably. In that year the erudite Randle Holme wrote The Academy of Armory, or Storehouse of Armory and Blazon. Said he, "The Hod is a kind of three­-square trough made up at one end and open at the other, having a staff fixed to the bottom."

Twenty-two years before Randle Holme had his folio printed, there had been a great fire in London in which 13,200 houses had been destroyed. To guard against another such conflagra­tion, it was ordained that new building should be of stone or brick. This, with the Dutch-style influence corning from the court of William and Mary, in­creased the use of bricks in England. Dr. Henry C. Mercer thought that the staffed hod may have come from the Low Countries into England along with "Dutch clinkers" and "Flemish bond'' – but such does not seem to be the case.

The famous Dutch book of trades, Spiegel Van het menselyk Bedryft, by Jan and Kaspar Luiken ( Amsterdam, 1694), shows no staffed hod, the plas­terer's laborer carrying a small tub on his shoulder. Mr. L. C. Uttenbroeck, a native of the Netherlands, informs us that he never saw a hod in use in Holland – the mason's helper carry­ing bricks balanced on his shoulder. He has made further inquiry of a Dutch architect who confirms this ob­servation. Although much of Eng­land's technology was of continental importation, it is probable that the staffed hod is an English invention.

In England the hod seems to have come to full flower. The long, low trough gave it a low center of gravity, the rectangular V - shape held the bricks snugly, and the open end made unloading easy. The staff held it high and made shouldering less of a back­breaking procedure and also helped balance the trough. The sharp edge tended to cut the shoulder, so, some­time before the early Nineteenth Cen­tury, a pad or cushion was fastened to it. A hod seen in use in 1940 was without this pad – in its place was a flat piece of wood about three and one-­half inches wide. the edges rounded.

The English colonists probably brought the staffed hod with them, shortly after its appearance in the homeland. The earliest American pic­ture of a staffed hod the writer has seen is in a Book of Trades printed at Worcester, Mass., in 1807.

The first American hod patent was granted to James Short, of Roxbury, Mass., on October 31st. 1865 (U. S. Patent No. 50.741). This was for "Applying to the underside of the hod, where it rests upon the shoulder, a flexible bag for enabling the workman to carry the hod with more ease than such as commonly made." This hod was equipped with a folding handle.

Hods after c. 1870 were frequently braced with an iron bracket running from the underside of the open end of the trough to the staff, the upper end of the bracket forming a hook, so that the hod could be hung on the rungs of an endless ladder called a "hod­elevator."

The hod-elevator seem to have been an American invention. On September 5th, 186.5, W. H. Totten of Academia, Pa., was granted a patent for a crude hod-hoist. The first prac­tical hod-elevator dates from 1870. On July 12th of that year, J. Flowers, of Chicago, Ill., was granted a patent for an endless ladder with flexible chain uprights, which engaged cog­wheels at top and bottom; the lower pair of cogwheels, geared with others, was rotated by two hand-cranks. The loaded hods were hooked on the rungs of the ascending side, the staff resting against a lower rung to keep the trough from tilting backward too far. The empty hods were returned on the descending side. This machine was a common sight in the 1890s

By c. 1922, the power-operated hoist with its pressed steel bucket rising rapidly between track guides, had tak­en the place of hod and hod-elevator. With this the hod cycle is complete,­ for although the staffed V-trough hod would have been a strange tool to the Thirteenth -Century hod-man, the hoists with their pully-wheels are still silhouetted against the American sky as they were in England seven hun­dred years ago.

The Roman Furca, mentioned earli­er, has been left so that it may be con­sidered in relation to its descendant, the French hod. called Oiseau.

"All machinery is derived from na­ture," said Vitruvius, and the Romans found that a forked branch could be turned into a carrying device. They merely put the branches on the shoul­ders with the crotch extending behind the neck and used the forward ends for handles. The load to be carried was held between the fork crotch and the neck. The Furca was also used as an instrument of punishment for both freemen and slaves, the arms of the offender being tied to its branches while he was whipped through the streets of the city.

Fourteenth-Century France knew the Furca and a masons helper of the period is shown carrying a tray of bricks by its aid. By the end of the Sixteenth Century, the Furca had been improved, the two handles sup­porting a small platform, which had an upright board curb along its fore­edge to keep the load away from the neck of the carrier. In transition it became a Oiseau, a change which Littre says is possibly a corruption of l'an­geau, a little tray.

Here ends a little journey along the pathway of the Builders. In their hands may this world be made clean and whole again.


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