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What is Belgian Block?

what is belgian block?

Belgian Block are extremely large rectangular or sometimes cubical shaped pieces of stone can be upwards of 10 to 12” in length and height. They are typically made of granite and used for paving, borders and a wide variety of landscaping projects.

The term Belgian Block may have some historical connection to when European ships set sail from ports such as Antwerp, in search of goods to trade. Large blocks of stone were used as ballast for ships that were too light.

The ships belly would be filled with goods purchased, then the blocks of stone would be left behind and often used for street paving, with U.S. port cities such as Boston, New York, Charleston benefitting. The term has simply stuck, with today’s very large granite cobblestone style blocks being referred to as Belgian Block.

A 2017 report prepared for New York City’s Historic Districts Council gave some interesting insight on Belgian Blocks in the city.

“By 1900 the stones used for such purposes were shaped to a relatively uniform width of between 4 and 5 inches, apparently proportioned to the size of a horseshoe. This allowed horses drawing heavy loads to secure a firm foothold in the joints between blocks. Such qualities made them particularly suited for use along waterfronts and other areas with heavy commercial traffic.“

Despite these advantages, these Belgian Blocks had their drawbacks. As early as 1889, observers commented about its “abominably rough surface and its propensity to get out of level.” They were difficult to maintain, became slick when wet, and were rued as the noisiest pavement type.

“Belgian blocks were hard, durable, and offered a much smoother and more regular surface than cobblestones—“a very solid and impervious roadbed,” according to an 1895 report in The City Record.

Belgian Block vs. Cobblestone

Often people will confuse them with cobblestones or call both by the same name. Nobody seems to confuse them with antique brick streets that were popular at the same time of course for obviously reasons.

Cobblestones are very different from Belgian Blocks and the difference is plain to see if you know what to look for. Belgian Blocks are rectangular or square whereas cobblestones are round.

Cobblestones are typically pulled from river beds where the years have worn away the rough edges and created the soft edged cobblestones.

In contrast Belgian Block were quarried and carry the shape and tool markings that come with that process. The rougher texture may have given them a rough and noisy ride on carriages and today’s automobiles but that rough texture and angular shape was imperative to creating a good solid foundation for the horse drawn carts of their day.

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