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.