Robert Benchley: About Portland Cement


There are many writers I deeply admire. Robert Benchley’s one of them. Here’s one of his essays, one of those that doesn’t get much attention compared to “Movie Boners” or “How To Get Things Done” or “The Treasurer’s Report”, but which I think is worth reading.


Portland cement is “the finely pulverized product resulting from the calcination to incipient fusion of an intimate mixture of properly proportioned argillaceous and calcareous materials and to which no addition greater than 3 per cent has been made subsequent to calcination.”

That, in a word, is the keynote of H. Colin Campbell’s “How to Use Cement for Concrete Construction.” In case you should never read any more of the book, you would have that.

But to the reader who is not satisfied with this taste of the secret of cement construction and who reads on into Mr. Campbell’s work, there is revealed a veritable mine of information. And in the light of the recent turn of events one might even call it significant. (Any turn of events will do.)

I suppose that these cement people understand their business. I shall know enough to watch out, however, and insist on having whatever cement I may be called upon to carry home done up in a cloth sack.

The first chapter is given over to a plea for concrete. Judging from the claims made for concrete by Mr. Campbell, it will accomplish everything that a return to Republican administration would do, and wouldn’t be anywhere near so costly. It will make your barn fireproof; it will insure clean milk for your children; it will provide a safe housing for your automobile. Farm prosperity and concrete go hand in hand.

In case there are any other members of society who have been with me in thinking that Portland cement is a product of Portland, Me., or Portland, Ore., it might as well be stated right here and now that America had nothing to do with the founding of the industry, and that the lucky Portland is an island off the south coast of England.

It was a bright sunny afternoon in May, 1824, when Joseph Aspdin, an intelligent bricklayer of Leeds, England, was carelessly calcining a mixture of limestone and clay, as bricklayers often do on their days off, that he suddenly discovered, on reducing the resulting clinker to a powder, that this substance, on hardening, resembled nothing so much as the yellowish-gray stone found in the quarries on the Isle of Portland. (How Joe knew what grew on the Isle of Portland when his home was in Leeds is not explained. Maybe he spent his summers at the Portland House, within three minutes of the bathing beach.)

At any rate, on discovering the remarkable similarity between the mess he had cooked up and Portland stone, he called to his wife and said: “Eunice, come here a minute! What does this remind you of?”

The usually cheerful brow of Eunice Aspdin clouded for the fraction of a second.

“That night up at Bert and Edna’s?” she ventured.

“No, no, my dear,” said the intelligent bricklayer, slightly irked. “Anyone could see that this here substance is a dead ringer for Portland stone, and I am going to make heaps and heaps of it and call it ‘Portland cement.’ It is little enough that I can do for the old island.”

And so that’s how Portland cement was named. Rumor hath it that the first Portland cement in America was made at Allentown, Pa., in 1875, but I wouldn’t want to be quoted as having said that. But I will say that the total annual production in this country is now over 90,000,000 barrels.

It is interesting to note that cement is usually packed in cloth sacks, although sometimes paper bags are used.

“A charge is made for packing cement in paper bags,” the books says. “These, of course, are not redeemable.”

One can understand their not wanting to take back a paper bag in which cement has been wrapped. The wonder is that the bag lasts until you get home with it. I tried to take six cantaloups home in a paper bag the other night and had a bad enough time of it. Cement, when it is in good form, must be much worse than cantaloup, and the redeemable remnants of the bag must be negligible. But why charge extra for using paper bags? That seems like adding whatever it is you add to injury. Apologies, rather than extra charge, should be in order. However, I suppose that these cement people understand their business. I shall know enough to watch out, however, and insist on having whatever cement I may be called upon to carry home done up in a cloth sack. “Not in a paper bag, if you please,” I shall say very politely to the clerk.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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