As demonstrated by its presence in the Egyptian pyramids, gypsum has served as a vital piece of many famous construction projects throughout history. Over thousands of years, this important mineral has demonstrated its versatility and sturdiness and has become a staple in today’s homes, buildings and structures.
This section provides an informative look at what gypsum is, the history of its use and how gypsum board is made.
- Ancient Egypt
Centuries of Reliability
Gypsum has been used in construction since the days of ancient Egypt, where it was used in building the Pyramids. Some of this construction is still visible over 5,000 years later, a tribute to gypsum’s durability as a building material.
Alabaster is a form of gypsum used both in building and as a decorative material. In the 18th century, the French chemist Lavoisier began modern research on gypsum by studying its chemical properties. Large deposits of gypsum were discovered near Paris, and “Plaster of Paris” became a popular building material. Plaster of Paris is raw gypsum that is chemically altered by heat to remove much of the water naturally occurring in gypsum.
French farmers also used natural gypsum as a soil additive to improve crop yields. Benjamin Franklin brought this idea to America, and the use of gypsum in agriculture expanded dramatically when gypsum beds were discovered in New York State. Later deposits were found across the country, notably near Ft. Dodge, Iowa.
- 19th century
Gypsum Boards in Construction
The use of gypsum boards in construction began in the late 19th century, after Augustine Sackett patented “Sackett Board,” layers of thin plaster of Paris placed between wool felt paper.
Sackett Board was often used as a replacement for wood and as a base for the application of plaster. In 1893, the exterior of the World’s Columbian Exposition palace in Chicago was finished with gypsum plaster bound with fiber. By 1916, Sackett’s product was a ready-to-finish board for use in construction, similar in concept to today’s modern gypsum board.
- 20th Century
The Gypsum Industry Booms
The demands for rapid construction of military housing brought about by World War I led to a sharp increase in the demand for gypsum board. After a barracks fire tragically took the lives of several servicemen, gypsum board’s fire-resistant qualities made it the preferred choice in military housing.
During World War II, gypsum board’s popularity accelerated again. By 1945, the military alone had used approximately 2.5 billion square feet of gypsum board—about 500,000 square feet more than the industry had produced just a few years earlier.
The economic boom of the 1950s spurred new innovations in gypsum technology. Gypsum board became even more fire-resistant, adaptable to curved partitions and increasingly applied in sound control systems. By 1955, roughly 50 percent of new homes were built using gypsum wallboard, and the rest were built with gypsum lath and plaster.
Because gypsum offered significant advantages over traditional heavy masonry and concrete, the gypsum industry focused on expanding its use in commercial construction. To meet the demands of high-rise building, the industry developed gypsum board shaft wall systems and movable partitions systems as well as improved fire resistance. The tallest buildings in the world at that time—the John Hancock Tower, at 100 stories, and the Sears Tower, at 110 stories—used gypsum board in construction.
- Modern Day
The Gypsum Industry Today
Now, with over 97% of new homes using gypsum board, it is clearly the interior construction material of choice.