Ceramic tiles have been produced since ancient times to decorate the floors, walls, and even ceilings of important structures, from temples to pyramids. Sometimes made of earthenware and painted, other times made of stoneware or porcelain that’s been glazed and fired, tiles can be used individually as accents or in grids to create larger images, scenes, and patterns.

Relief tiles in the shapes of rectangular bricks were a staple of the ancient Persian architecture practiced in what is now Iran, while geometric and vividly colored tiles were a signature style of the Ottoman Empire in 16th-century Turkey. Around the same time, from Italy to Portugal, artisans were lining the interiors and exteriors of palaces and churches in shiny tin-glazed earthenware tiles, which mimicked tapestries or depicted flora and fauna.

Anything ceramists did with art pottery they did with tiles. The Dutch made Delft plates, vases, and figurines, so they also produced square Delft tiles, which gave any wall or surface a clean and fresh look thanks to their simple, blue-on-white patterns. The Italians, on the other hand, used the lush richness of majolica to create busy tiles that enticed the eye. Other tiles were created almost as plaques—Wedgwood Jasperware tiles and those made by the Grueby Faience Company were often framed as works of art.

The 19th century was a particularly good period for ceramic tiles thanks to the 1840s revival of the medieval technique of encaustic tilemaking. Unlike tiles whose surfaces had been painted and fired, encaustic tiles used clay bodies of different colors to create designs and patterns. Because their designs extended an eighth of an inch or more into the clay body itself rather than just laying on the surface where it could be easily worn away, encaustic tiles were embraced by architects looking for decorative treatments on flooring.

The mechanical breakthrough in the Victorian Era that made the previously laborious encaustic technique affordable was called dust-pressing or dust process. One of the first manufacturers to recognize the potential of this new method of manufacturing was Herbert Minton, whose father had founded the Staffordshire pottery of the same name. Minton quickly made his firm the foremost producer of encaustic tile flooring. In fact, by 1856, Minton, Hollins and Company, as it was then known (Minton is now a part of Royal Doulton), supplied encaustic floor tiles for additions to the United States Capitol. Despite the high traffic they were subjected to, the original tiles lasted more than 100 years before being replaced in the 1970s.

After the Civil War, American entrepreneurs launched encaustic tilemaking firms of their own. Founded in 1875, the American Encaustic Tiling Company of Zanesville, Ohio, was one of the first. Under the direction of Gilbert Elliott of England, American Encaustic produced flooring for Zanesville’s Muskinghum County Courthouse in 1877. By 1880, the company’s reputation had spread east—that year, American Encaustic made floors for the New York State Capitol Building in Albany.

In 1889, the owners of American Encaustic actually tried to relocate it to New Jersey, but the people of the clay-rich town of Zanesville, which was also the home of Roseville and Weller, raised $40,000 to keep the plant from moving. Still, American Encaustic’s connection to the East Coast was strong. In the 1920s, for example, half of the white rectangular "subway" tiles used to line the insides of the Holland Tunnel between New York and New Jersey were produced by American Encaustic. In fact, the 1920s were a productive time for the firm, with notables like Frederick Rhead of Fiestaware fame on the payroll. But American Encaustic could not weather the Great Depression, and in 1937 it was reorganized as Shawnee Pottery...

Mosaic Tile Company also got its start in Zanesville, founded in 1894 by two American Encaustic employees, Karl Langenbeck and Herman Mueller. Mosaic Tile began with floor tiles made from Ohio clay, but its offerings quickly expanded. At one point designer Ruth Axline of Weller was on the payroll, as was Frederick Rhead’s brother, Harry, who left Roseville to oversee Mosaic’s faience line.

Mueller eventually left Mosaic to found Mueller Mosaic Tile Company in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1909. Langenbeck’s place in ceramic tile history is closely associated with Rookwood. It was Langenbeck, after all, who in 1873 introduced Rookwood founder Maria Longworth Nichols to decorative ceramics, although Nichols was also inspired by Haviland china. Founded in Cincinnati in 1880, Rookwood worked with artists such as Ferdinand Mersman, who became the principal designer for Cambridge Art Tile Works in Covington, Kentucky. In the mid-1880s, Nichols’ old friend Langenbeck was brought in to make the production of Rookwood’s tiger eye and goldstone glazes more predictable.

For tile collectors, some of the most sought Rookwood pieces are the oak-framed wall plaques from the early 1900s. Some were small-scale copies of painting by Dutch masters like Rembrandt and Hals, others were landscapes finished with a vellum glaze. The size of Rookwood plaques ranged from four by eight inches to 14 by 16, although Rookwood artists also produced oval and round pieces.

Another early American encaustic pioneer worth noting was the United States Encaustic Tile Company of Indianapolis, which was founded in 1877 and renamed United States Encaustic Tile Works in 1886. The company was well regarded for its floor, wall, and fireplace tiles (figurative relief mantel tiles were sold in groups of three or six panels).

Pennsylvania was also fertile ground for tilemakers. Doylestown was home to Moravian Pottery and Tile, which was known for its tile murals and fireplace surrounds, the most famous being the Bible Fireplace from the early 1920s. Beaver Falls Art Tile Company made its name with embossed tiles, often used as decorations on stoves. Robertson Art Tile Company did its work in Morrisville while Star Encaustic Tile Company was based in Pittsburgh.

Not all tile innovations occurred in landlocked states. Low Art Tile Works of Chelsea, Massachusetts, began firing tile in 1879. Owner John Gardner Low used everything from real leaves to pieces of lace to impress patterns on his tile. In addition to this so-called “natural” process, Low artists also made high-relief tiles by hand, as well as low relief portraits, landscapes, and character studies that Low called “plastic sketches” (just about all of these were executed by Arthur Osborne, whose signed his work with an “A” surrounded by an “O”).

On the west coast, particularly in Southern California, a tile renaissance took place between 1890 and World War II. Gladding McBean of Los Angeles produced decorative tiles of thick red clay. During the Arts and Crafts era, Ernest Batchelder produced tiles of varying shapes for interiors and exteriors—some of his tile fountains are considered historical landmarks. In the 1920s, the Malibu Potteries, Catalina Pottery, Santa Monica Brick Company, and Brayton Laguna Pottery specialized in bright tiles featuring Mediterranean colors and designs.

The palette of northern California tilemakers was no less restrained, as seen in the turquoise tiles of Berkeley’s California Faience and the rich blues and greens of Richmond’s California Art Tile Company. By the 1950s and ’60s, Edith Heath of Sausalito’s Heath Ceramics was championing a Mid-century Modern approach to elegant rectangular tiles, which were used in everything from swimming pools to kitchens.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Gouda Design

Gouda Design

Stuart Lonsdale and Kim Lindley's excellent tribute to and reference on Gouda Dutch Art Pottery and Delftware. The … [read review or visit site]

Cowan Pottery Museum Associates

Cowan Pottery Museum Associates

Dedicated to raising awareness of the ceramic art work of R. Guy Cowan and his Cowan Pottery Studio in northeastern… [read review or visit site]

The Pottery Studio

The Pottery Studio

This 7,000-plus page site lives up to its self-billing as a 'knowledge base' with examples of work from all major a… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Rare Antique Signed Grueby Art Pottery Arts & Crafts Dragon TileMotawi Art Tile Cool Cardinal 4" X 8" Charley Harper Mid-century ModernMotawi Art Tile Frank Lloyd Wright Chicago 4" X 8" Arts & Crafts Bungalow Era Tile California Faience Rare No ReserveModern Danish Design - Rosewood Table With Royal Copenhagen Tiles - Wegner EraA Delft Blue & White Tile Depicting A Heron With An EelAntique 19thc French Gilt Brass Mother Of Pearl Tile Inlaid Pocket Watch HolderBeautifull Antique 1880's Trent Majolica Portrits Silhouettes 2 Tiles As Is Antique Tile Of 2 Monks At A Table H Richard Tile Co?Paul Mccobb Patterns Pomona Ceramic Tile 4.25" Mid-century Modern Retro VintageChinese Pottery Rooster Boat Roof Tile Dragon Ship Ming Tang Sancai Glaze DamageAntique Porceleyne De Fles Royal Delft Co. Tile, 6" X 8" Floral Farm Scene Two 18th Century Manganese Tiles Depicting Interesting Scenes.Matched Pair Of 8 Antique American Encaustic Arts & Crafts Pottery Tiles, 6x6Beautiful Majolica Glaze Art Nouveau Relief Moulded Lotus Tile (marsden PotteryMotawi Art Tile 4" X 4" Owl Vintage Grueby Tile 6x6 Cupid With Cymbals Chinese Pottery Roof Tile In The Form Of A Leaping Carp 20thcMotawi Tile Antique 1880's Beautiful Lady Portrait Tile Trent Tile Co. Teal Blue/green GlazeMotawi Art Tile Thistle 6" X 6" Decorative Polychrome Art Tile Antique Chinese Qing Painted Porcelain Landscape 6 Panel Screen Signed 18 Tiles Vintage California Tile. Cal Art Of Richmond Ca Sewer Tile Clay Lion9 Vintage Pewabic Pottery Flower Tiles - 3 Inch X 3 Inch X 3/4 Inch TilesMotawi Tile Works Set Of 3 Framed Flower TilesAntique Mexican Tile Art Man With Flower Sombrero1923 Pung Chow Art Deco Maj Jong Game W Rosewood Tile Racks Wood Case EtcEarly California Spanish Revival Tile 6"x6" And 1/2" Thick C.1930'sMotawi Art Tile 4" X 4" TurtleVintage Handcraft California TileAntique Delft TilesVictorian Blue & White Tile By George Woolliscroft & Son C1890sAntique Persian Man On Horse Parrot Pottery Tile Qatar WowRare Photographic Tile Of W E Gladstone By Sherwin & Cotton Original Frame 1898Motawi Tile Works Framed Sunflower Tile (#4892)Ruth Faktor Hand Made Village By The Sea Ceramic Plaque Judaica Art Tile Israel Vintage Mercer Tile Moravian Pottery Cobalt Glazed Birds Wall Sconce Arts CraftsNeat! Rare! Texas Mexican Or California Art Deco Era Tile Table W/ Iron BaseRookwood Pottery Tile 1927 " Southern Belle " # 30 70 MarkedAntique Little Bo Peep Walter Crane Marked Mosaic Tile Aetco Faience R 2479Pretty Minton China Works Tile With Pinks And Honeysuckle FlowersBatchelder Los Angeles Deco Tile20th C. Chinese Famille-rose Enameled Porcelain TileAntique Blue And White Galleon Ship English 6 Inch Tile Number FourPewabic Pottery TileAntique Dutch Polychrome Delft Tile Elefant Rare 17th Century - Free Shipping1922 Rookwood Tile Trivet Southern Belle + Parasol & Hooped Skirt #3069 FramedPewabic Pottery Iridescent Realtor Art Tile 1949Antique Tile 8-sided Star Shape Lavender Donkey With Spots Rare Vintage Ussr Russian Soviet Hand-painted Tile Art Winter Moscow Scene W/boxAntique Walter Crane Ceramic Tile A Lady Loved A Swine Mosaic Tile CompanyAntique T R Boote Art Nouveau Ceramic Tile Stylised Rose MajolicaHandmade Earthenware Tile From Danish Potter Helle Bendstrup A Rare Tile By Lee Boulton ?Art Nouveau Red Green Ceramic Tile T & R Boote64 Pcs Antique Victorian Fireplace Mantle Surround Tile Palamino & Cream Aet CoEarly Arts And Crafts Ceramic Tile Puritan Figure. #829Super Rare Set Antique Christ?mary Tile Opaline Glass (museum Quality)A Delft Blue & White Tile With A Women In A Land Scape