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When Was Drywall Invented: Uncovering Its Historical Origins

Drywall, a widely used building material today, was invented in 1916 by the United States Gypsum Corporation (USGC) under the name Sheetrock. However, the concept of drywall can be traced back to 1894 with the invention of the Sackett board by Augustine Sackett. This innovation marked a significant shift in construction from the traditional lath and plaster technique that was prevalent in the past.

The Sackett board considered the prototype of modern drywall, essentially consisting of layers of plaster and paper, providing a time- and labor-saving alternative for builders. Over the years, the drywall industry continued to evolve, with USGC refining the original Sackett board concept and eventually creating the Sheetrock product in the early 20th century. Drywall quickly became popular in North America, offering greater convenience and efficiency than its lath and plaster predecessor.

Today, drywall plays a crucial role in the construction industry, offering versatility and ease of installation. Its history and development have led to various innovations that cater to different construction needs, including fire-resistant and moisture-resistant boards, enhancing the safety and durability of structures worldwide.

History of Drywall

Drywall was invented in the late 19th century. Two innovators collaborated to develop a new building material to find an alternative to the traditional, labor-intensive lath and plaster walls.

Augustine Sackett and the Invention

Augustine Sackett and his university colleague Fred Kane invented the first drywall prototype in the 1880s. The initial concept was a straw, tar, and felt paper wallboard. Sackett and Kane aimed to save time and money on traditional plaster walls, which were heavy and expensive. Their invention, Sackett Board, was intended as a more affordable option for lower-class citizens (House Practical ). In 1894, Sackett patented the Sackett Board, the precursor to modern drywall (House Grail).

Sackett Plaster Board Company

Augustine Sackett and his partner Fred Kane established the Sackett Plaster Board Company in 1894. They developed a machine the same year to manufacture the wallboard efficiently (InspectApedia). As the product continued to evolve, the Sackett Board eventually utilized paper impregnated with gypsum crystals that bonded with the applied facing layer of plaster. In 1936, US Gypsum trademarked ROCKLATH for their gypsum lath product, reflecting the influence of Augustine Sackett’s early invention on modern drywall (Wikipedia).

Evolution of Drywall

USG and the Sheetrock Brand

The invention of drywall is credited to Augustine Sackett in 1894 (source). Still, it evolved in 1916 when the United States Gypsum Corporation (USG) created the Sheetrock brand (source). USG, which integrated 30 different gypsum and plaster manufacturing companies, aimed to revolutionize the construction industry by providing a faster, more efficient alternative to traditional plaster walls. With Sheetrock, they introduced a gypsum board that reduced the time and labor needed for plastering.

From Baby Boom to World War II

During the post-World War I era, the construction industry was booming, and there was a need for more efficient building materials. Drywall, in the form of Sheetrock, became the perfect solution due to its ease of installation and lower cost. By the time World War II arrived, drywall had gained popularity as a quick and efficient way to construct temporary buildings for the military (source).

After World War II, the United States experienced a baby boom, leading to a significant increase in housing demand. Drywall became the go-to material for constructing these new homes. It was more affordable and quicker to install than traditional plaster. This period saw a rapid expansion of the gypsum board market and further cemented drywall’s place in the construction industry.

Improvements in Fire Resistance

In the early days of drywall, concerns about the material’s fire resistance were raised as it was more flammable than traditional plaster walls. USG and other companies in the gypsum industry worked to address this issue by focusing on research and development. Their efforts led to the creation of a fire-resistant gypsum board, an essential step in establishing drywall’s place as a reliable and safe building material (source).

Fire-resistant drywall was just one of the many improvements made to the material over the years. Additional advancements include the introduction of moisture-resistant and mold-resistant styles, as well as a variety of thicknesses for different applications. The continuous evolution of drywall has made it an indispensable part of the construction industry today.

Drywall Composition

Drywall is a widely used construction material known for its cost-effectiveness and ease of installation. Its composition includes core components and layers contributing to its functionality and durability.

Core Material and Additives

The primary drywall material is gypsum, a naturally occurring mineral. Gypsum is known for its versatility and fire-resistant properties, making it an ideal choice for the core of the wallboard. To create the core, gypsum is mixed with water and various additives like starch to enhance its performance.

These additives can contribute to the drywall’s overall strength and resilience, helping it resist cracks, moisture, and other damage that can occur over time. Some drywall types also include additional materials, such as glass fibers or wool, providing further resistance against mold and moisture. 

Facing and Paper Layers

Drywall is covered with layers of facing material, typically consisting of specialized paper on both sides. The paper used in drywall is not standard but rather a specific kind designed to adhere to the gypsum core and provide a durable surface for finishing.

The facing paper can vary in composition, with some types made from recycled content. In contrast, others may include wool felt paper to enhance the wallboard’s performance. This ensures the drywall panels are smooth, easy to install, and ready to accept various finishes like paint, texture, or wallpaper.

Benefits of Drywall

Drywall has become a staple in modern construction for its numerous advantages, including cost and labor efficiency, fire resistance, and mold resistance.

Cost and Labor Efficiency

One of the primary reasons for the widespread adoption of drywall is its cost-effectiveness. Compared to traditional plaster and lath construction, drywall materials are more affordable, and their installation requires significantly less labor and time. In addition, drywall offers various thickness options, depending on the project’s needs, further enabling builders to tailor their choice to their budget and structural requirements.

Fire and Mold Resistance

Drywall’s fire-resistant properties have also contributed to its widespread use. The main component of drywall, calcium sulfate dihydrate, releases water when exposed to heat, slowing down the fire’s spread. This characteristic makes drywall an excellent choice for interior walls and ceilings, providing increased safety and protection for occupants.

Moreover, drywall can be made mold-resistant by incorporating specific additives during manufacturing. Such drywall types are particularly useful in moisture-prone areas like bathrooms and basements, where mold growth is common. Mold-resistant drywall helps maintain indoor air quality and reduces the risk of mold-related health issues.

Drywall in Residential and Commercial Construction

Drywall has become popular in residential and commercial construction due to its efficiency and versatility.

Popularity in the Industry

Drywall gained prominence in the industry during the 1940s, significantly reducing the time needed to build a structure. Its availability, ease of installation, and cost-effectiveness made it the preferred choice for walls and ceilings in various types of buildings. According to the Gypsum Association, the US gypsum industry manufactures over 20 billion square feet of drywall annually, showcasing its widespread use and acceptance.

Fire-Rated Assemblies

One of the key features of drywall is its ability to provide fire resistance, making it suitable for residential and commercial constructions. The development of Sheetrock by the United States Gypsum Corporation in 1917 was primarily aimed at enhancing fire safety. Over the years, advances in air entrainment technology made the boards lighter and less brittle while also minimizing the risk of fire spreading between rooms or building sections.

In addition to the inherent fire-resistant properties of the material, the Gypsum Association has established fire-rated assemblies using drywall systems. These assemblies can help builders meet fire code requirements by specifying the appropriate materials and techniques. Such fire-rated assemblies aid in enhancing the overall safety of a building while preserving design flexibility.

Alternatives to Drywall

Plaster Walls

Plaster walls are a traditional wall covering that predate the invention of drywall. They consist of sand, lime, or gypsum applied in layers over a wooden lath support system. Plaster provides a durable and aesthetic surface, but its application process can be time-consuming and labor-intensive compared to drywall installation.

Fiber Cement Boards

Fiber cement boards are another alternative to using drywall for interior walls. These boards are made from a mixture of cement, sand, and cellulose fibers, which provide strength, durability, and moisture resistance. Fiber cement boards are a popular choice for bathrooms and kitchens, where moisture and humidity levels are higher, and they prevent mold and mildew growth.

Lath and Plaster

Lath and plaster is a method similar to plaster walls but with slight differences in the application process. In this technique, thin strips of wood, known as laths, are nailed horizontally across the wall studs. Wet plaster is then applied over the laths, which get embedded in the plaster layers, creating a strong bond between the laths and the plaster itself. Once the plaster dries, it forms a solid and smooth surface. Lath and plaster were commonly used before the invention of drywall. Still, this method fell out of favor due to the time-consuming nature of its installation and the efficiency that drywall provides.

Concerns and Controversies

Hurricane Katrina and Chinese Drywall

One significant controversy related to drywall arose after Hurricane Katrina in 2006 and 2007. During the rebuilding process, a substantial amount of defective drywall was imported into the United States from China and used in tens of thousands of homes. This imported drywall led to complaints about foul odors, health effects, and metal corrosion in the affected structures (source).

Health Risks of Hydrogen Sulfide

The health risks of the defective Chinese drywall were largely attributed to sulfur compounds, such as hydrogen sulfide. In low concentrations, hydrogen sulfide is a toxic gas that can irritate the eyes, throat, and respiratory system. Prolonged exposure to hydrogen sulfide may lead to more severe health problems, such as headaches, dizziness, and difficulty breathing.

Residents living in homes with defective drywall reported experiencing symptoms consistent with exposure to hydrogen sulfide. Moreover, this gas also resulted in corrosive effects on metal surfaces within the homes, such as plumbing and electrical systems, which further increased the potential risk to occupants (source).

Future of Drywall

As the construction industry continues to evolve, the future of drywall is also undergoing significant changes. Driven by concerns related to sustainability, durability, and innovation in building materials, developing improved and more efficient versions of drywall is becoming increasingly necessary.

Sustainability and Durability

Environmental consciousness is playing a more prominent role in the building materials sector, leading to the development of sustainable and durable drywall alternatives. Building materials, such as fire retardant gypsum boards, are being created to have a lower environmental impact, helping to reduce waste and increase the lifespan of structures. This demand for sustainable materials ultimately leads to more affordable and durable solutions for the construction industry.

Innovations in Building Materials

As the industry standard for affordable and effective interior walls, drywall has seen numerous advancements that have aimed to overcome its limitations. One significant innovation is the integration of moisture-resistant technology, which enhances the overall durability of drywall and its resistance to mold and water damage. Furthermore, lightweight and flexible drywall allows for easier installation and transportation, reducing construction projects’ overall cost and effort.

In addition to moisture resistance and weight reduction, other significant innovations in building materials include the development of fire-retardant drywall. These new types of drywall are designed to better withstand fire and limit its spread, resulting in safer and more robust structures for residential and commercial purposes.

Ultimately, these ongoing advances in drywall technology demonstrate the construction industry’s commitment to creating building materials that are not only cost-effective but also environmentally friendly and safe. As we look toward the future of drywall, it’s clear that sustainability, durability, and innovation will continue to shape and enhance this essential building material.