OT Petrified hessian (burlap)

When I was a child, many decades ago, there were still a few structures
around on various farms that dated from the time of the Depression and that
were largely built out of a substance called petrified hessian (hessian
being what Americans call burlap).
To build these structures, a wooden frame would be constructed and then
hessian (burlap) would nailed to the frame whilst being stretched tight.
The hessian would then be painted with a mixture made up of water, alum,
cement, salt and lime. After about 3-5 coats of this mix, the structure
would be weather proof and the walls stiff and surprisingly durable (given
that even I can remember them and I wasn't born till after WWII). It was a
very cheap form of putting up shelter and seems to have been used for
poultry sheds and similar structures.
I was wondering if this form of building was used in other parts of the
world but google is surprisingly quiet about it even if I do use burlap as a
search term instead of hessian. Has anyone come across it before?
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Hessian is the British term for burlap. Burlap is a coarse cloth made from jute, and also hemp. I'm sure burlap was coated with all manner of compounds to add stiffness so it could be used for temporary/inexpensive construction. I remember in the early '40s that a slurry was made of paper mache strengthened with asbestos and laid up to form corrogated sheets for stiffness that could be used like modern plywood/fiberglass. Asbestos was once a very common building material.
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the portion on "Pit Construction":
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: hes·sian
noun Date: 1710 1 capitalized a : a native of Hesse b : a German mercenary serving in the British forces during the American Revolution; broadly : a mercenary soldier 2 chiefly British : burlap
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My grandfather was a plumber who worked on some of the first buildings in Canberra, this would have been about 1915, and he took his new bride to live in such a structure on site. He described it as hessian covered with layers of whitewash but I think it was very likely the mix that you describe because whitewash alone would not have stayed weather proof for long.
They lived in these "tents" because there were no houses to start with as Canberra was built on a sheep station. My eldest aunt was born there and grandma raised her in their tent while they were there. In winter the temperature can drop to -8C and frosty, or you can get howling winds behind rain at 6C. There only heating would have been wood fires but the tent would have had almost no insulation ability. In summer it gets up to 43C, obviously there was no aircon or domestic refrigeration for plumbers, my guess is they would have been lucky to get ice for an ice box and that would not have lasted long. They were tough in those days.
Reply to
David Hare-Scott
I've lived for all of my life in the southeastern USA and date from 1945. Don't remember seeing or hearing about such siding. However, the year-around high humidity and long wet summers may have inhibited its use in my neck of the woods. Hereabouts, so-called "tar paper" was commonly used as Depression era exterior siding, often without sheathing of any kind. The modernday equivalent is rolled roofing: Densely felted textile fibers impregnated with asphalt and coated on the weather side with some unknown-to-me crystalline mineral.
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Ah! Your post brought back memories of some interesting research I've done in the past. I lived in Canberra for a time and still visit it often. The city in a sheep paddock. Sometimes I think it was a waste of a good sheep paddock.
I have a few books on early Canberra so I instantly recognised what you wrote about and even mentally pictured the areas where they may have had their tent home. They wouldn't recognise it now, which is a pity.
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The process is covered in a chapter titled "cement coated bags for poultry houses" in ""cement and concrete for the handyman" A "Domus" Book" 1951 Melbourne Australia. Pages 90-92.
It says to use 12oz hessian as the weave is loose enough for the cement to penetrate.
Also mentioned in the Werribee Shire Banner (newspaper) Thu 8 Feb 1945 attributing it to "the Victorian Journal of Agriculture".
Both say 1.5 gal water, 12 pound cement, 2 pounds lime, 1 pound common salt, 1/2 pound of alum. Disolve alum in two pints of water seperatly, the salt to the remainder of water.
Mix cement with the salted water and when thouroughly mix add the alum water and mix through. 1 coat on the outside, one on the inside. Before they dry do another coat on the outside. Suggests adding further coats will make a stronger board.
Further says the second outside coat can be equal parts fine sand and cement, as long as final coat is the original mix, as this is waterproof.
Hope this helps
Reply to
John Murray

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