Many years ago when my parents rented a large farmhouse and land west of Leetonia, Ohio, we heated the large 10-room house with one fireplace, a pot belly stove and a coal-burning kitchen stove.
In the winter, I slept in a downstairs room that contained the fireplace. Many nights I would watch the fire and look at the tiles lining the fireplace. Those tiles were a mixture of Delft and Rookwood plus a few glazed tile of unknown origin.
When our country was a new colony, tiles were imported for many decades. After the Exposition of 1876, American industrialists recognized the need for American-made tiles.
During the 1700s, only the well-to-do could afford imported Delft blue and white or tin glazed polychrome or transfer print tiles made by applying a desired print via a copper master plate made by Liverpool manufacturers.
In the early 1800s, Minton of England devised an unusual method of tile manufacturing that he named “encaustic tiles.” These tiles were first impressed with a design, then colored clays were poured onto the surface to fill the designs, then fired to harden.
During the mid-1800s, they were very popular in America and used as floor tile in homes and public buildings.
America’s first ornamental tiles were named “art tiles.” These were relief tiles featuring classical and rural motifs. The Low Art Tile Works and American Encaustic Tiling Company was one of the first to enter the market.
By 1890, Americans wanted to see something different and after 1900, American manufacturers offered more artistic and realistic subjects on tile instead of the extremely gaudy and fantasy styles of Victorian art.
Matte finishes replaced the glossy glaze. Tiles started showing up in other areas beyond floors and fireplaces, like stair risers, walls and entrance walls.
Many earthenware plants ceased operation during the Great Depression.
In the 1970s, it was difficult to locate any reproduction tile for restoration efforts. Slowly, manufacturers of tile products came to realize there was a demand for decorative tiles. These period tile manufacturers range from a small establishment of one or more people to large worldwide distributors.
Copies of historical patterns and designs are produced to almost perfection.
Today, similar to tile manufacturing beginnings a century ago, tile making artisans are growing in numbers.
These artisans not only recreate the early 1900 Arts and Crafts period tiles in designs, they also are imitating the vivid translucent hues so famous on the old tiles. Delft blue and white tiles are also available.