A Lesson on the History of Tiles

A Lesson on the History of Tiles

History of Tiles

Have you ever wondered how people first started making tiles?

The history of tiles is a long and winding tale that starts in Egypt, circa 10,000 B.C., around the time of the pyramids. From there it went into Babylon, Assyria and the ancient Persian Empire. 

After that, the Greeks and Romans took over this ancient art and made it their own with fine mosaics that lined the floors and walls of their bath houses, luxury villas, and temples. Around 206 BC, the Chinese got in on the act with their contribution to ceramics: porcelain.

However, they were mostly isolated from other cultures. It wasn't until much later that Europe began using ceramics and soon they would be incorporated into their churches and palaces too. 

Today, modern stone masons have taken tile making to a high art, just as when it started in Egypt, to allow the average homeowner to explore the wonders of this ancient art.

The First Ancient Tiles

There really isn't anything simpler to make than a terracotta tile and that is how the whole thing started. You basically take clay and dry it in the sun or fire it in an oven and it turns into a terracotta tile. In fact, the name terracotta literally means "baked earth."

It is said that original terracotta tiles first were used to line the roofs of homes, and are far removed from the decorative tiles we know today. You can still see examples of terracotta roof tiles, like these, in the Mediterranean regions and luxury homes around the United States.

History of Tiles

Egypt's First Stone Masons

The origins of tile history wouldn't be complete without mentioning that, of course, the Egyptians were the first to work in stone. They also created large stone tiles, to which they put on their writing (hieroglyphics) and other images. They loved using granite, travertine, and limestone. In fact, it is believed that the Great Pyramid was covered in white limestone tiles that made it highly reflective in the Egyptian sun, thus being able to be spotted from miles away. Sadly, that limestone was salvaged by later people and used to build newer mosques and fortresses.

Limestone is still prized today for its ability to brighten any room. Take a look at this modern bathroom done all in white limestone.

Persian and Babylonian Tiles

If you want to see a perfect example of how the Babylonians took ceramics to a new level, just take a look at the Ishtar Gate, created around 575 B.C. The brick tiles were constructed from molds that allowed them to use repetitive motifs and then glazed to create brilliant color that can still be seen today.

This burst of color inspired the Greeks and Romans to start creating their own works of art in color. Previously, they had only done mosaics with pebbles as they were more long-lasting than terracotta tiles. With glazed tile ceramics and stone mosaics, the durability increased and they could make geometric designs that still inspire tile-makers today, like in this bathroom.

Rome's Love of Travertine Tile

Rome loved tiles, probably even more than the Greeks. They put them in large public spaces, and made some enduring works of art for even modern day tourists to enjoy. Travertine was one of their favorite stones to use in tile works and these were used in the Colosseum and survive to this day. This short YouTube video gives you a good view of this majestic structure and its role in the history of tiles.

England's First Glazed Tiles

From Rome and France, glazed tiles showed up in England around the late 10th century in churches and royal palaces. Porcelain was being imported from China to make sure the British royalty had their fine tea sets. By the 19th century, Britain had found a way to mass produce all sorts of tile designs. These became family heirlooms and were passed down and probably brought by many English settlers into the Americas, when they made their voyages to the New World.

Checkerboard patterns were very popular in the grand lobbies and hallways of royal palaces, like Versailles. Today's luxury homeowners can now emulate royalty with the same pattern in their hallways at home.

The Arts and Craft Movement Enlivens Tile Design

America's contribution to the history of tiles begins with the Arts and Craft movement. Here, the use of tiles made it into the homes of ordinary people, not just the palaces and public spaces created by royalty. Arts and Craft homes used earthen tones to create very livable spaces, using tiles because they celebrated the handmade ethos of that movement.

This bathroom is a modern take on the "earthy tones" that would have been popular with the Arts and Craft movement.

The Industrial Age Creates Custom Wonders

Instead of mass producing ceramic tiles or cutting tiles with diamond bits, it is now possible to use a waterjet to cut to an individual's specifications. This makes it possible to create custom works of art that are unique to a specific home or business. These designs would have been quite impossible to do in the past due their precise curves, which were hard to do with another tool without breaking the stone into pieces.

Look at the intricate curves and shadows that can be created with waterjet technology used today.

Is Tile History Over?

As can be seen, in every age and country, tiles were modified and improved and the technology grew over time to create even new possibilities. In Egypt, the humble terracotta and limestone tiles became ceramic works of art that survive to today. The Romans may have made stone mosaics available to the adoring eyes of the Roman public, but it wasn't until the British started mass-producing ceramics that the ordinary person began to be able to use them in their homes. Today's newer waterjet technologies now allows anyone to cut stone tiles that would have been considered miraculous in earlier ages. Thus, it is easy to surmise this art will continue to develop even further as new materials and technologies transform it over time.

About the Author

Nelson Londono founded Artsaics in 1998 after learning the ins and outs of designing custom artistic tiles and stone mosaics. The New York-based surfacing company specializes in producing stunning artistic tiles & stone designs with fine natural stone from around the world. Nelson and his team's passion lies in working with their hands, heads and hearts to make each and every space a unique reflection of self expression. You can learn more about Artsaics here.