What's in a Name?

The name “drywall” refers to the fact that walls made of the material are installed without the use of water. A major problem with plaster had been the extremely long drying time associated with it, as it was installed wet, and installers had to wait for the previous layer to dry before installing the next one. The word “gypsum” comes from the Latin term “gypsos,” meaning “plaster.”

History of Drywall

The U.S. Gypsum Company (USG) invented drywall in 1916. It was originally called "Sackett Board," after the Sackett plaster company, a USG subsidiary [Source: Allen]. The material was first sold in the form of small, fireproof tiles, but within a few years, it was sold in multi-layer gypsum and paper sheets. In less then a decade, it took on the form we know, consisting of a single layer of compressed gypsum sandwiched between two sheets of heavy paper.

While it only took a few years for this board to evolve into the material we know today, it took 25 years for builders to begin using drywall in any substantial quantity.

With all its uses and benefits, why were builders hesitant to use something as simple as drywall? At the time, drywall was thought of as a cheap fix, with none of the fine art associated with making plaster. People didn't want to live in homes that were shoddily constructed, so they stuck with the tradition and expense of plaster.

U.S. Gypsum eventually changed the brand name of the material to "Sheetrock" in an attempt to improve drywall's reputation, but builders and homeowners still paid no attention.

It wasn't until the United States became involved in World War II that builders came around to the benefits of using drywall [Source: Gellner]. As the country's labor force became focused on war manufacturing and many soldiers were sent overseas to fight, quick and inexpensive building materials were needed to offset the labor shortage and war costs. Because the labor shortage was too intense for plastering to remain a viable building option, people began to use drywall instead. Houses and factories could be constructed in a fraction of the time and with a fraction of the labor previously required. Cheap and efficient products were seen as patriotic because they allowed citizens to spend more time and money supporting the war effort.

By the time the war ended in 1945, drywall had become the dominant building material in the United States. During the post-war building boom, contractors knew they could construct homes and workplaces in one-tenth the time if they abandoned plaster for drywall, leading to higher profits. Over time, the use of plaster gradually faded as people all over the world turned to drywall. With net sales of over $5 billion in 2007, the U.S. Gypsum Company is still one of the world's top producers and innovators of drywall and related products [source: USG].

Next we'll look at how drywall is made and how it's evolved since the early days of its invention.