Archive for the ‘Analysis’ Category

Union concrete masters IV

June 2, 2017

Since posting my last set of OPCFIA union bugs from Local 594, I’ve found another.

This one, you’ll know by the horseshoe and date, is from Ensor H. Buel. I’ll put together his story soon. But this shows what happens to so many marks as the years pass. When the parking-meter post at upper left was installed the workers smeared mortar on Buel’s mark, then more damage occurred when it was cut down, and sawcuts on the right were the latest insult.

After years of observing our sidewalk stamps, I notice when they disappear. Some are wiped out entirely as a whole lot is resurfaced, and others die gradually by a thousand cuts.


Odds and ends

July 15, 2016

Here are a few add-ons for some previous posts on Oakland Underfoot.

I found a second variation of the utility-hole covers used by The Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company, predecessor of Pacific Bell, featured in my post of June 17. I’m quite taken with it.


I found another concrete master number used by a member of OPCFIA local 594. As of now that makes 16 different numbers, but I’m sure there are a few more out there. Previous posts are here and here and here.


Finally, I located a fourth sidewalk maker who was a member of the Cement Contractors Association of Alameda County. The other three are here.


My impression is that like the others, this mark dates from the late 1920s.

Human errors

May 27, 2016

A sidewalk stamp is a proclamation of the maker’s skill, an inscription literally made in (artificial) stone. But as every copy editor knows, mistakes can escape the most stringent quality checks. I’ve found misspellings on the very spine of a book. Here are some I’ve found on Oakland’s sidewalks.

Some concrete workers set their marks a letter at a time. I know this from the errors they made, like this one by T. A. Ryan.


Or this anonymous mark by the fire station on Martin Luther King at 17th Street.


More typically, a concrete contractor would have a stamp cast in bronze; see Louis Lambretti’s original stamp over on the Sidewalk Secrets blog. Having a stamp made was an important business decision that must have been a pricey deal, one that involved appointments with a metalsmith to settle on the design and text. I assume that if the contractor or the fabricator was fooled by the reversed text, the stamp sometimes came back from the foundry with a harmless mistake.

The earliest example I have is the pair of reversed letters on the Oakland Paving Company’s first stamp.


Patrick Ryan put up with this particularly sloppy stamp that included an inverted “A”.


Laurits Rasmussen never did have the reversed “N” on his stamp fixed, but it’s rarely even visible.


The error in James B. Lee’s stamp was more glaring, but he kept using it.


And it didn’t seem to bother A. Rodrigues that his city was spelled wrong.


But Lazzero Banchero had no choice but to reject his fabricator’s cockup. It’s conceivable that he didn’t notice until the first job he tried to stamp. All I know is that there’s only this one example in Oakland.


Some people just have trouble seeing letters. In earlier times we used to call them slow or stupid. As we all know today, you can be dyslexic and still be smart and successful, doing jobs like metalsmithing and concrete finishing that usually let you finesse your weakness. But you do have to take extra care to get things right. And if there are two dyslexics in the chain of fabrication, all bets are off.

Fortunately, today stamps are made cheaply of silicone rubber, and concrete is very predictable allowing mistakes to be troweled over. Both factors have made errors very rare . . .


but not impossible.

Union concrete masters III

May 13, 2016

I’ve rustled up a few more numbers in the OPCFIA union bug since the last batch I posted.




Not much to say about these. Hal Bennett’s marks (very few of which are dated) run from 1930 to 1950. L. B. Duffin marks run from 1944 to 1947. And the Fitzmaurice mark II runs from 1926 to 1941.

Sidewalk makers of Fruitvale

April 1, 2016

I count eleven different firms or practitioners who used “Fruitvale” in their sidewalk stamps. Here they are.


One dated example from 1915.


One example from 1927.


One example from 1926.


No dated examples.


No dated examples.


Examples from 1912 and 1914-1919.


No dated examples.


Examples from 1918, 1920, 1922, 1928, 1929, 1931, 1932 and 1936.


Examples from 1911 and 1922-24.


Examples from 1913-18, 1920, 1922, 1924 and 1927.


One example from 1912.

Conceivably there are others whose work survives only outside Oakland. I doubt it, though.

Union concrete masters II

March 25, 2016

In the last few weeks I’ve spotted five more numbers in the OPCFIA union bug. The last three are interesting to me in a new way.






What’s interesting about the last three? First, J. H. Fitzmaurice employed several master craftsmen, although that’s not a surprise. It was a big firm, probably accounting for more Oakland pavement than any other. Second, students of Fitzmaurice marks will note that the first is the fourth configuration used by this longtime Oakland company, and the other two are the fifth and last. The older mark was made by an earlier registered master, as indicated by the lower number.

The master number ought to be a secondary clue to the ages of marks, like Fitzmaurice’s, that rarely bear dates. Paleontologists will be familiar with this problem because fossils never bear dates — all we know is their position on the stratigraphic column. That’s an idealized stack of sedimentary rocks built by noting what rocks overlie or underlie other rocks. The stratigraphic position obviously corresponds to some true age, measured in years, but the only way to estimate it, even partially, is to find a secondary clue, like a bed of fresh volcanic ash that yields an absolute date with isotopic (radiometric) methods, like the uranium-lead or potassium-argon or carbon-14 techniques. If we have that, then we can say that a nearby fossil has a comparable age.

In the case of sidewalk stamps, we can safely assume that the numbers of the master concrete workers were assigned in numerical order. But those numbers aren’t dates. We need marks that have both a date and a master number to help establish the timeline of masters. And that won’t tell us much. A single example will only tell us that the master was active that year, not the year he earned his number or the year he retired. With enough data, we can zero in on those years but never know them for sure. I’ll see what comes up as I look around. Because as the saying goes, “What songs the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, although puzzling questions are not beyond all conjecture.”

Oakland sidewalk makers: A century in a graph

December 25, 2015


Since my survey of every Oakland street finished, my attention has turned to digesting the results. This histogram presents the number of different concrete workers who left their names on the sidewalks of Oakland during a given five-year period. The number reflects just the presence of their names, not the amount of sidewalks they built. The graph is based on about 90 percent of the city. We can’t take its significance very far, but it’s still interesting.

Beyond the bluntness of the conceptual tool, we have to keep in mind what the data misses. Many concrete workers did not date their work. Presumably most of the oldest marks have been paved over. Of course I’ve missed many of the most recent marks put in place after I’d passed by. No doubt some marks were obscured by fallen leaves, parked cars, poor lighting conditions etc. when I visited the street. My attention surely lapsed now and then. Contractors’ practices and city policies have changed. Dealing with that stuff is why historians go to college.

That said, the bones of the data are pretty clear. The Era of Artisanal Sidewalks spanned some momentous times: the post-1906 earthquake boom, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II and the Great Acceleration that followed, which is not in the textbooks yet but surely will be soon. I look forward to your thoughts.

I prepared this graph for a talk to the Oakland Heritage Alliance in January 2015. (The Alliance website lost its past in a redesign, so as the lady said there’s no there there.) The talk was fun; I could give a new version to your organization.