• AWCI Centennial - 1920s

    The 1920s: Choosing Sides

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AWCI's Centennial: The 1920s

“The journeyman of today is the contractor of tomorrow.”
— Oscar A. Reum, CPIA president, to union plasterers in Boston, 1920


Flappers danced the Charleston, Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, and the stock market crashed at the end of the decade.

An era of prosperity settled upon America after the Great War. Warren G. Harding won the presidency in 1920, and his administration’s policies were unabashedly pro-business. When Harding died suddenly in 1923, Calvin Coolidge, his vice president, succeeded him. Coolidge inherited a buoyant economy. Over the decade, corporate profits, stock dividends and wages all rose. People think of the 1920s as a playful, materialistic era. In truth, the decade brought only “a modest level of comfort” to most people, Encyclopædia Britannica says. Still, many enjoyed buying a radio, telephone, refrigerator or motor car. On the cultural front, the image of the flapper—a young women who loved jazz and bob haircuts—took hold in the media. Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic. The world seemed stable, until the stock market crash of 1929.

U.S. President Warren G. Harding

U.S. President Warren G. Harding, a Republican, was pro-business. Republicans controlled the White House during the 1920s.

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After an 18-month recession ended in July 1921, the U.S. economy grew steadily. Construction growth peaked in 1925.

After the war, big business renewed its opposition to organized labor. “The American Plan” was a public relations campaign that labeled union shops as un-American. Employer organizations in 44 states supported it. Many employers refused to sign union contracts.

But skilled tradesmen were in short supply, so developers couldn’t be picky in wanting open shop workers.

AWCI Centennial Book

The Contracting Plasterers’ International Association accomplished much during the 1920s. It sat on important industry councils. It began standardized testing of materials and issued specifications for lathing and plastering. It nurtured good relations with the unions. Fundamentally, CPIA chose sides. It chose to support organized labor. It viewed union mechanics as preserving the trade craft and as being the industry’s future employers. But in the end, CPIA sided with the government over many important issues. This was providential. Soon, a Great Depression would overwhelm life. The government would need to exert control over the building industry in ways it never had before.

View this decade’s complete content in the Centennial Book’s digital edition.

In San Francisco in 1922, suppliers allegedly refused to sell the contractor materials because he had not met a certain quota of non-union mechanics.

Union membership totaled 5 million in 1920. Members were active, pushing for higher pay and shorter workdays. The American Federation of Labor was one of the largest and most powerful unions. The AFL had agreed to a no-strike pledge and to not organize open shops during the war. In return, the government supported collective bargaining and higher wages. Most employers complied and raised their pay.

CPIA Secures a Big Seat at the Table

As Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover wanted to reduce construction disputes and seasonality. He helped organize the American Construction Council in 1922. The council’s goal was to provide steady employment for the 3 million workers in the building industry. Average employment in the building industries was only 180 days a year. CPIA president Oscar A. Reum served on the council and on its 11-man executive committee.

Unfortunately, employers challenged labor after the war ended. When workers walked off their jobs in one of the largest waves of strikes in the country’s history, the backlash was swift and widespread, says Encyclopedia of American History. Unionism “remained in a weakened state throughout the 1920s,” it says. The Plasterer (October 1922) said it was “a national battle with … employers, waged for more than a year.”

Trade associations streamlined the government’s chain of commanded to control building projects.

Herbert Hoover, as secretary of commerce and later as president, “[made] the trade association movement one of the major building blocks in his plan to give the federal government a responsible role in guiding the American economy,” says Encyclopedia of American Economic History.

Trade associations flourished in the 1920s.

Metal Lath
The Rise of Metal Lath

Sales of metal lath began to take off in the 1920s, promoted as a crack-proof and fireproof base for walls and ceilings. The 1924 catalog from Milwaukee Corrugating Company touted its Milcorp line. CPIA organized a tour of company facilities in 1927 during its annual convention in Milwaukee.

This was true in plastering. Before CPIA’s 1920 convention in Detroit, the Master Plasterers’ Association of Indianapolis wanted to form the Contracting Plasterers of the State of Indiana. This new state association would affiliate with CPIA. Plastering contractors organized themselves and looked to CPIA for international focus and leadership.

Gypsum wallboard. IIn 1926, National Gypsum Company began producing a gypsum wallboard unlike any at the time. It was stronger, lighter and less brittle than the wallboard from United Sates Gypsum Company and Universal Gypsum. But, would it find a market? Back then, carpenters didn’t like gypsum wallboard, which they felt chipped and was heavy. Furthermore, the supply networks were notorious for resisting change. New products had to prove their value, which is why National Gypsum favored a show-and-tell approach to selling its board.

One day, the story goes, an eager National Gypsum salesman called on a Niagara Falls building materials dealer. He brought along two sawhorses, a pile of sash weights and wallboard. He placed the wallboard on the sawhorses and threw sash weights on top of them. National Gypsum’s wallboard held two to three times as many sash weights as other boards. Gold Bond—named after a certificate offering $5,000 to anyone who could prove its claims untrue—changed the industry. It made gypsum wallboard a bona fide alternative to lath and plaster construction. Contracting plasterers had to consider that wallboard “substitutes” now had merit.

CPIA held its 11th Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., Oct. 1–4, 1928.

CPIA held its 11th Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., Oct. 1–4, 1928.

AWCI: Action

In 1922, union plasterers wanted employers to side with them in the fight against general contractors. GCs wanted to push subcontractors, those represented by CPIA, out of the bidding picture.

CPIA supported the mutual interests and affiliations between contracting plasterers and journeymen, and called for contracts with each respective construction trade.

On Oct. 5, 1920, Oscar Reum addressed the 25th convention of the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Finishers’ International Association in Boston.

“The threads of this great and important industry have gradually been gathered together,” said Reum. “We are interdependent upon each other.”

The plasterers burst into applause. Reum had a way of engaging a crowd, and he spoke further about honesty, cooperation and doing things in full-measure. He was a master at articulating common interests and stirring up core values.

“The journeyman of today is the contractor of tomorrow,” Reum said. “It is the part of wisdom for both of us to join hands in the protection and advancement of our craft.”

CPIA held its Third Annual Convention at the Hotel Stattler in Detroit on Oct. 16, 1920. The convention focused on price fluctuations and jurisdictional issues.

One of the largest projects in the 1920s, Chicago’s Merchandise Mart began in 1928. McNulty Bros., a CPIA member, had the interior plastering contract.

One of the largest projects in the 1920s, Chicago’s Merchandise Mart began in 1928. McNulty Bros., a CPIA member, had the interior plastering contract.

In his annual report, CPIA President Reum made an ardent plea for a stronger organization among contracting plasterers and journeymen plasterers.

Attendees discussed the problem of price fluctuations. Reum recommended that affiliated employing plasterer associations adopt a contract that would protect the subcontractor when material and labor prices increased.

CPIA’s Resolutions Committee proposed several resolutions. Attendees agreed to the following: (1) appeal to the National Board of Jurisdictional Awards to have scaffolding work returned from the jurisdiction of the carpenters to the plasterers, (2) separate the business of modelers from union plastering mechanics, (3) refuse to countenance the practice of offering bonuses as an inducement to secure men, (4) check first with the secretary of the association in a territory where you wish to compete so that general contractors, architects and owners, who have a practice of peddling bids, cannot undermine industry pricing, (5) standardize wages by the zone system and refer these to the CPIA executive board.

In June 1922, about 200 delegates representing architects, contractors, builders, trades subcontractors, dealers and manufacturers met in Washington, D.C., and formed the American Construction Council.

Herbert Hoover, secretary of commerce, sponsored the meeting. Franklin D. Roosevelt was president and head of the council’s executive committee of the board of governors. CPIA’s Reum attended the sessions and was appointed to serve on the council and its executive committee.

CPIA Annual Convention

Reports show that 250 attended the CPIA Annual Convention in Oakland in 1929.

Reum was one of 11 industry leaders overseeing proposals and decisions related to standardizing material grades, gathering industry statistics, providing for year-round construction employment, organizing trade vocational training and handling jurisdictional disputes. True, the American Construction Council was a short-lived effort. But for a time, Roosevelt, Reum and 10 others directed the nation’s construction industry.

In “Better Plastering,” an article series for plastering mechanics, American Builder (June 1, 1925) cited CPIA’s recommended specification for applying wood lath.

CPIA specified the grade of wood lath, the importance of having a 3/4-inch key between lath and the size nails to use. CPIA also provided recommendations on which wood lath species to use depending on the region. CPIA was now an authority. Its work on developing specifications and standards would never end.

Convention in Oakland. CPIA held its 12th Annual Convention on Oct. 2–3, 1929, at the Hotel Oakland, Oakland, Calif. An Oakland Tribune report expected 250 delegates to attend.

Wallboard’s Movers and Shakers

Modern wallboard owes its success to the vision of Sewell Avery, the founder of United States Gypsum Company. Credit also goes to Augustine Sackett, an inventor, Oscar Reum, CPIA president, and National Gypsum Company’s founding trio of Joseph Haggerty, Clarence Williams and Melvin Baker.

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Augustine Sackett patented his plasterboard in 1894. Sackett’s board was made of laminated sheets of alternating layers of straw paper and plaster of Paris. But, it was U.S. Gypsum’s Avery who saw the invention’s market potential. “The steady increase in demand for fireproofing in all classes of buildings promises well,” Avery wrote in a 1907 company report. Sackett Panel Board replaced flammable wood lath and was an excellent base for gypsum plasters. U.S. Gypsum purchased the Sackett Plaster Board Company for $500,000 in preferred stock and $350,000 in cash in 1909.

Sackett Plaster Board changed over time. In 1913, U.S. Gypsum settled on a formulation using two plies of paper and a solid gypsum core. The company renamed the product Adamant Panel Board, but the name didn’t last. D.L. Hunter, a U.S. Gypsum sales rep, especially loathed it. In 1917, Hunter proposed a new brand name, writing it on a scrap of paper: “SHEETROCK Non-warping, Non-burning Wall Covering.” In time, SHEETROCK became a preferred choice for government building projects.

Oscar Reum, president of CPIA, worried about the spread of board products. In 1920, Reum told a convention of lathers to be on guard against “substitutes” aiming to replace wood lath, saying these manufacturers had large advertising budgets. However, Reum also saw board products as game changers. According to American Builder magazine, Reum was the third stockholder in the Celotex Corp., a British wallboard manufacturer, and shared in its founding.

A milestone in the development of the wallboard market came in 1926. A Chicago plasterers strike in that year helped to propel wallboard sales. In May 1926, about 2,500 Chicago journeyman plasterers went on strike for a $2 a day wage increase. The builders wouldn’t accept cost increases and looked to substitutes to plaster. “The names of these substitutes are Celotex, Sheetrock, Bestwall, Plastergone and Gypsolite,” the Chicago Daily Tribune reported.

National Gypsum Company introduced Gold Bond gypsum board in 1926. National Gypsum’s founders, Joseph Haggerty, Clarence Williams and Melvin Baker, had all worked at the Beaver Board Company. Haggerty and Williams had helped to form Universal Gypsum. National Gypsum, incorporated in 1925, opened two plants during the 1920s and ran full-page Gold Bond ads in the Saturday Evening Post.

Sales of board products grew significantly in the early 1920s. Celotex, which produced 12 million feet of wallboard for the United States and Canada in 1921, reached 230 million feet by the end of 1926. U.S. Gypsum added three wallboard lines during the 1920s.

Despite worries, gypsum wallboard became a bona fide alternative to lath and plaster construction.

AWCI: People

Oscar Reum stands out for his prolific speeches and writings. He was perfectly suited to his job. Reum spoke candidly and articled principles that CPIA, and later AWCI, would long espouse.

“Many of the union men are of the opinion that we are organizing primarily for the purpose of fighting organized labor. I want to say to you, gentlemen, that that absolutely is not so. We are organizing for the purpose of protecting our craft trade.”

Reum said that employing plasterers hire lathers. General contractors, however, might use carpenters to put up lath.

“I am sincerely trying to bring about a better understanding and a clear co-operation between the men that we employ and our employers,” Reum said. “It is absolutely a thankless task for me. I spend a lot of my time in the interests of this business, because someone has got to do it.”