The United States Tile Industry: A Historical Timeline

The undeniable beauty and durability of decorative tile makes it popular once again, and encaustic tile brings back the traditional patterns

Tile flooring has its roots in ancient history, with tile floors and mosaics found in archeological sites around the world. Although many types of stone, ceramic, and porcelain tiles have been popular throughout world history, encaustic tile provides insight into the colorful tile design, history and trends of the past, with examples that can still be viewed today due to their durable patterns. And this is especially true in the United States tile industry, where the patterns of custom encaustic tile established many color and pattern trends that were popular for interior design - especially in Gothic Revival, Italianate, and Victorian architecture. 

1836 to 1845: Encaustic Tile as a Decorative Trend

Encaustic tiles - with their highly durable, embedded patterns - can be found throughout Europe. Their roots in United States history began with a company called Minton's Ltd., a pottery factory in Staffordshire, England. Established in 1793 by Thomas Minton, his son, Herbert Minton, took over the company upon his father's death in 1836. Herbert Minton took the business in new directions, including an interest in historic cement tile design to create durable patterned tile floors for the ornate Gothic Revival style of architecture. He formed a partnership with Michael Hollins in 1845 to form Minton, Hollins and Company, and the market for custom cement tile and durable flooring began to surge in popularity. 

1850: The Influence of Andrew Jackson Downing

Andrew Jackson Downing was a famous American landscape designer, architect and writer who promoted many new designs of the day, including Gothic Revival and Italianate styles. He wrote about encaustic tile in his 1850 book, "The Architecture of Country Houses," and recommended custom encaustic tile floors for residential homes - especially in entryways due to their durability. 

1845 to 1856: Modern Manufacturing and Imports from England

Minton's modern cement tile designs and dust-pressing tools allowed the tile industry to use mechanical tools for manufacturing and offered a more efficient and inexpensive method of making custom cement tile. Minton's patterned tiles were imported to the United States for use in many public buildings, churches and homes, and they enjoyed renewed popularity in Europe as well. Minton, Hollins and Company traveled throughout the world to trade shows and exhibitions, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. As a result of these exhibitions, Minton, Hollins and Company won an important, high-profile contract to install their colorful tiles in the United States Capitol building. 

1860s: Colorful Encaustic Tile Influenced Residential Design

Due to their popularity and the recommendation by Downing, imported encaustic tiles became popular in the 1850s and 1860s. The colors that were used in their production were changed as well, due to manufacturing improvements. Encaustic tiles can typically be dated based on color; red and white tiles are the oldest. Brown, blue and yellow were next, followed by earthier tones of soft browns and reds. By the 1860s, up to six different colors were being used in each pattern of encaustic tile. These colors were echoed in home interior design.

1870 to 1876: The United States Begins Production of Tile

The production of decorative tiles in America began about 1870. In 1876, the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition included exhibits of both imported and American decorative floor tile. The availability of American-made tile brought the cost of custom cement tile as a residential building material into a more affordable range. 

1876 to 1890: United States Tile Factories

Many of the new tile companies in the United States had the word "encaustic" in their names. The Pittsburgh Encaustic Tile Company began making residential and commercial encaustic floor tiles in 1876. More than 20 American tile companies were founded through the rest of the century. The American Encaustic Tiling Company in Zanesville, Ohio was founded in 1875, and by 1890 it was known as the largest tile company in the world. Many other encaustic and ceramic tile companies flocked to Zanesville, and this small town was considered the capital of tile making and pottery for many years. As a result, the population of the town nearly tripled in size over the next 30 years.

1890 to 1905: Changes at the Turn of the Century

Most of the decorative, patterned tile made in the United States prior to 1890 was encaustic tile, but the many tile-making factories meant that new types of tile were quickly developed and added to the commercial market. Additionally, the strong presence of tile manufacturing in the United States resulted in a near absence of English imports by 1890. The tile industry remained strong during the turn of the century and the Victorian era of architecture. However, after the turn of the century, custom encaustic tile began to lose its popularity; it was replaced by ornate glazed ceramic tile and mosaic tile. Additionally, new products such as lightweight linoleum came on the market, offering a wide range of colors and durability.

1905 to 1930: American Craftsman Mosaic Tile Flooring

Mosiac tiles for flooring may have been the primary reason for the decline in popularity of encaustic tile. Mosaic tiles were produced in sheets that made the installation of these tiny tiles easier, and they gave the tile setter a great deal of flexibility with pattern design and installation in small spaces. Beginning around 1905, mosaic tile floors were common in many American Craftsman homes, with hexagon, pennyround and square tiles creating geometric designs.

1929 to 1939: The Great Depression

The decorative tile industry came largely to an end in the 1930s due to the Great Depression. Production of flooring during this time became simplified and utilitarian, with lower-cost linoleum, cork, rubber and hardwood floors creating the new standards for flooring design. 

1980 to present: Modern Popularity

The undeniable beauty and durability of decorative tile makes it popular once again, and encaustic tile brings back the traditional patterns found in the United States tile industry's history, along with new patterns that appeal to contemporary tastes. 

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