Illustrated Architecture Dictionary


Various hard, brittle, heat-resistant and corrosion-resistant materials made by shaping and then firing a nonmetallic mineral, such as clay, at a high temperature.


Terra cotta is a type of ceramic.

Ceramic Subway Tile

Ceiling Guastavino tiles   ...   Wall subway tiles   ...   Source: Library of Congress

It might just be the hardest-working wall covering in America. From the moment that ceramic subway tiles made their debut in New York City's subterranean train stations in the early 1900s, they captured the public's imagination and quickly moved into the bathrooms and kitchens of prewar houses for both practical and aesthetic reasons.

Easy to clean, stain resistant, and light reflective, the 3-by-6-inch glazed white rectangles epitomized what those rooms could and should be: sanitary.
- This Old House (online March 2018)

1950s: The Return of Colored Tile

The 1950s brought a renewed sense of fun and optimism. People weren’t keeping their kitchens and bathrooms as hygienic “factories.” Enter the era of pink, mint, and baby blue tiles—think 1950s automobiles. It’s estimated that 5 million pink bathrooms remain in use in American mid-century homes. Mosaic tiling, with small rectangular patterns and 1" squares, became popular in the 1950s.

Later that decade, tile more liberally encased tubs and even went floor to ceiling throughout the bath. (Prior to the 1950s, tile was usually applied as a wainscot around the walls of the bathroom, reaching higher only around the tub.)

- Barbara Rhines,  "Guide to 20th-Century Bathroom Tile," pub. on Old House Journal, Aug 11, 2014  (online Feb. 2019)

Development of the Tile Industry in America

Although plain, undecorated ceramic tiles were traditionally a common flooring material in many parts of the Americas, especially in Latin and South America, ceramic floor and roof tiles were probably not made in the North American Colonies until the late-16th or early-17th century.

It was, however, in the Victorian era that ceramic tile flooring first became so prevalent in the United States. The production of decorative tiles in America began about 1870 and flourished until about 1930.

Like so many architectural fashions of the day, the popularity of ceramic tile floors in America was greatly influenced by the noted architect and critic, Andrew Jackson Downing. In his book The Architecture of Country Houses, published in 1850, Downing recommended encaustic floor tiles for residential use because of their practicality, especially in vestibules and entrance halls.

The 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, with its European and even a few American exhibits of decorative floor tile, was a major factor in popularizing ceramic tile floors in the U.S. Initially, most ceramic tiles-other than purely utilitarian floor tiles-were imported from England, and their relatively high cost meant that only wealthy Americans could afford them. However, when English tile companies realized the potential for profitable export, they soon established agents in major U.S. cities to handle their American business. The English near monopoly actually stimulated the growth of the U.S. tile industry in the 1870s resulting in sharply decreased English imports by 1890.

- Anne E. Grimmer and Kimberly A. Konrad, "Preserving Historic Ceramic Tile Floors," pub. on PreservtionBriefs #40 (online Feb 2019)

Ceramic Tiles History

Ceramic tiles have existed for thousands of years—in fact, archaeologists have unearthed numerous mosaic floors beneath the ashes at Pompeii. But owing to production methods that were lost or forgotten over time, ceramic floor tiles didn’t become prevalent in the United States until the Victorian era.

Their popularity began in England, thanks to the Gothic Revival movement, which reintroduced medieval encaustic tiles—individual tiles bearing an inlaid pattern in a contrasting color, created by the new dust-pressed method—to a receptive public. As with many home fashions dating to this time, the tiles were brought to an American audience largely through Andrew Jackson Downing’s 1850 book The Architecture of Country Houses.

Downing recommended entry floors tiled in marble or pottery for their durability, moderate cost, and “good effect.” His book makes direct reference to encaustic tiles—which at the time would have come from England in a range of browns inlaid with blue and beige tones (and would have been expensive imports reserved for the wealthiest homeowners).

America’s tile selections would soon expand, largely thanks to the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. The Philadelphia Exposition featured many exhibits of sanitary ware and decorative European floor tiles—including displays of encaustics by Herbert Minton, one of the architects of the Gothic Revival—and the buzz around them convinced their manufacturers there was a marketplace for such products in the U.S.

The companies soon established satellite offices, and their presence spurred on a domestic tile industry. The Pittsburgh Encaustic Tile Company is considered the first successful American company to manufacture ceramic tile commercially in the U.S., beginning in 1876, and by 1894 dozens of companies had joined the fray. Their early offerings dovetailed nicely with late Victorian-era discoveries on germ theory that would propel a desire for ultra-sanitary surfaces in kitchens and bathrooms, which made tile an ideal flooring medium.

In this fresh, germ-sensitive frontier, all-white tiles became preferred for bathroom floors because they were considered the best for spotting—and thus eliminating—dirt and microbes, and keeping a home’s inhabitants healthy.

Pre-mounted sheets of 1" ceramic mosaic tiles (in a range of geometric shapes like honeycomb, pennyround, and square) made intricate designs less time-consuming to achieve.  For example, by replacing a few individual mosaics with tiles in a contrasting color, a basic pre-sheeted white 1" hex tile floor could readily be accented with rosette flowers or a simple solid border.
- Demetra Aposporos, "Mosaic Floor Tile Patterns for Floors,"  pub. on Old House Journal, Aug 28, 2018  (online Feb. 2019)

Examples from Buffalo architecture:
Examples outside of Buffalo:

Photos and their arrangement 2015 Chuck LaChiusa
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