Courtesy BTHL

This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization.

While the BTHL was originally established to preserve the history of building material publications, over time, it has become a resource for environmental professionals and remodelers to identify potentially hazardous components of older building materials.

A primary example of this is asbestos. Incorporated into vinyl tiles, roofing components, and even timber slabs, asbestos was added to many building materials during the 20th century. While we now know that asbestos poses health risks, in the past, many manufacturers advertised their products by highlighting the use of asbestos.

Here, the BTHL chronicles the history of products containing asbestos throughout the 1900s.

Hints on Modern House Painting, H. W. Johns Co., New York, 1886
H. W. Johns was an early adopter of asbestos, including it in in various building products such as paint. This catalog advertises the application of asbestos in paint on such projects as the Oriental Hotel in Coney Island, N.Y., and the Fabyan House in White Mountains, N.H.

Trade Priced List of the Asbestos, Roofing Slates, Shingles & Sheathing, Asbestos Shingle Slate & Sheathing Co., Ambler, Pa., 1906
In the early 20th century, building material manufacturers combined asbestos with cement for products that were lauded for their durability and fire resistance. The Asbestos Shingle, Slate & Sheathing Co. offered cement-asbestos shingles in a variety of shapes and sizes including those that imitated slate or clay tile.

Ambler Asbestos Building Lumber, Asbestos Shingle Slate & Sheathing Co., Ambler, Pa., 1922
This catalog highlights an asbestos cement-and-lumber panel suitable for interior or exterior use. The Asbestos Shingle Slate & Sheathing Co. advertises it as a substitute for plaster in “English half-timber exteriors.”

Zenitherm for Walls and Floors, Zenitherm Co., New York, 1930
These composite panels could be specified for floors or walls in various colors and surface patterns such as marble or wood. While the catalog does not explicitly mention asbestos, the Zenitherm is known to have been produced using the fibers.

The Catalog of Johns-Manville Building Materials, Johns-Manville Corp., New York, 1932
This catalog of building products from Johns-Manville Corp. features asbestos roofing shingles as wells as insulation and wall sheets. The publication highlights its Bric-Side shingles, claiming they are “the only type of asphalt singles which closely simulate structural siding material.”

Legends of Asbestos, Keasbey Mattison Co., Ambler, Pa., 1939
This catalog offers an illustrated history of asbestos, starting with its use in ancient Greece and culminating with products by Keasbey Mattison Co.

Felt-Cote Asbestos-Protected Metal Roofs & Siding, American Steel Ban Co., Pittsburgh, 1942
The Felt-Cote system of coating corrugated steel panels emphasized the use of asbestos and asphalt to create a durable exterior coating for steel siding panels, primarily for application on industrial buildings.

Flor-Ever Vinyl Plastic Floor Covering, Sloane Delaware, Trenton, N.J., 1954
Following World War II, it became popular to specify vinyl-asbestos-tiles in residential, commercial, and institutional buildings.

Hope’s Patent Glazing, Henry Hope & Sons, Birmingham, England, 1959
Hope’s patented glazing for roof installation utilized a “greased asbestos cord fitted into grooves.”

Congoleum-Nairn Inc.: Fine Floors and Walls, Kearney, N.J., 1960
Congoleum-Nairn sold Sparkelwood, a line of vinyl asbestos tile inlaid with “brilliant gold graining.”

Asbestospray Sprayed-On Fibre Acousicla and Thermal Insulation Fireproofing, Abestospray Corp., Newark, N.J., 1961
This catalog advertises a popular method of insulating structural steel in the mid-20th century, which including adding asbestos to cement and using a liquid spray system.