A tile is a manufactured piece of hard-wearing material used for a variety of purposes. The word "tile" originates from the French "tuile," which is from the Latin "tegula." "Tegula" roughly translates to "a roof tile composed of fired clay." Tiles have existed in some form for over 10,000 years.



Tiles can be made of ceramic, metal, stone, or glass. Tiles are used in many different ways. For the most part, they function as coverings for various fixtures. These fixtures include showers, floors, walls, and other surfaces, such as countertops and tabletops. Perhaps the most common type of tile is roofing tile, which has been the primary material for roof construction in Europe and Asia for thousands of years. In fact, some samples of early clay and mud tiles are thought to be over 7,000 years old.


Tiles are not only a long-lived material, but a universal one. Some early tiles found in China date back to 10,000 BCE -- all the way to the Neolithic Age. Fired roof tiles from as early as the 3rd millennium BCE have been found in Greece. At this particular site, archaeologists found thousands of terracotta tiles that had fallen from roofs.


In the 14th century CE, the Dutch began producing tiles. This change came about when city rules began to require the use of fireproof building materials. At the time, houses were usually constructed of wood with thatch roofing. Because of this, fires were able to spread with great speed and cause widespread devastation. Dutch roof makers then began to produce roof tiles by hand. In general, these roof makers built their factories near rivers, where there was a steady source of clay. The rivers also provided a ready source of easy transport.



When Dutch settlers first arrived on the American east coast, they began importing clay tiles from Holland. By 1650, they had established full production of clay tiles in the Hudson River Valley, located in the modern American state of New York. Glazed and unglazed tiles were advertised during the American Revolution as being able to withstand any weather -- a claim that has been proven again and again throughout the ages. Clay tile was first manufactured on the American west coast by Native Americans, who worked under the direction of Spanish missionaries. This occurred at Mission San Antonio de Padua in the modern American state of California.


As in Holland, fire danger was a major catalyst in popularizing clay roofing tile in America and England. A disastrous fire in London in 1666 and another one in Boston in 1679 prompted the creation of building and fire codes in these cities. For almost two centuries, these fire codes remained in wide use, encouraging the use of clay roofing tiles to lower fire risk. Usage of clay tiles was particularly recommended in urban areas, where cramped and crowded buildings increased fire danger significantly. Clay tiles were also preferred to other materials because they are easy to maintain and have little thermal conductivity, meaning that they do not conduct heat.


Use of clay tiles began to decline in the north-eastern United States midway through the 19th century. Wood shingles saw a rise in popularity outside of fire districts. Wood shingles were more affordable and much lighter. Because of this, wood shingles required less heavy and involved roof framing. Also, many other fireproof roofing solutions were gaining traction in an ever-growing market. Materials such as copper, zinc, and tinplate overtook clay tiles in popularity. They were much cheaper and easier to install. Because of this, clay tiles had mostly fallen out of favour by the 1830s -- but only temporarily.


Not too long after this shift in preference, the introduction of the Italian villa style of architecture to the United States renewed interest in tile-based construction. The clay tile industry was revitalized, and large factories sprung up in Akron, OH and Baltimore, MD. However, tinplate roofing overtook clay tile in popularity (this time painted a terracotta colour to mimic the Italian style), and clay tiles again lost popularity for a short time. In the 20th century, interest was once again peaked by the revival of Romantic and Renaissance architectural styles. Since then, tiles have remained popular and widespread.


Tiles remain a popular choice for roofing for many reasons. Early tiles were made of concrete and baked clay, which are both known for their durability and resistance to inclement weather. Additionally, they are fireproof, which continues to add to their popularity. The availability of clay in many areas also makes clay tiles relatively simple to produce.


Of course, roofing is not the only application for tiles. Tiles have been used in a decorative fashion for almost as long as they have existed. Decorative tiles found in Egypt date back to nearly 4,000 BCE! For the next few millennia, many countries competed to become leading developers of the art. Rome, Greece, China, India, Persia, Syria, Turkey and Tunisia are just a few of the countries who developed tile art. One of the most popular decorative applications of tile is mosaic.


"Mosaic" refers to the art of creating an image from assembled small bits of coloured glass or stone. Artists can also create mosaic using other small pieces of material, such as tile. The art of mosaic has existed in some form for about 5,000 years. The earliest examples of mosaic were found inside of a temple building in Abra, Mesopotamia (roughly in modern-day Iraq). Artists composed these mosaics of pieces of coloured stones, seashells and ivory. Actual mosaic patterns, however, were not used until the Sassanid Empire. The usage of mosaic patterns came with the advent of Roman influence in the Middle East.


Greek and Roman mosaics were very different than their predecessors from the Middle East. These mosaics typically copied paintings, which were widely considered a much higher art form. Romans happily adopted the mosaic style, and created large floor mosaics in Hellenistic villas and Roman dwellings. The Greek and Roman mosaics spread from Britain to Dura-Europos, a border city located in what is today Syria.


Despite how long tiles have been around and how common they were in ancient and medieval cultures, they were not widely available to the public until the early 1900s. Before this time, tiles were most often used to decorate important public buildings and the homes of wealthy people. For example, in colonial America, only the most elite had expensive imported tiles installed in their homes. Fireplaces were the most popular application at the time. This usage later expanded to foyers, kitchens, and bathrooms.



Tile art experienced a massive revival and began to be mass-produced in Victorian-era England. Tiles that made up patterns were now widely produced and level enough to use for floors. They were also cheap to produce for churches, schools and public buildings. Tiles were also used more often in domestic hallways and bathrooms. Since the Victorian era, tiles have remained a standard material for kitchens and bathrooms. Tiles also remain common in many public areas. Tile work is also used extensively in pools and fountains.


Domestic use of tiles has skyrocketed since the Victorian era. In the 1920s, face-mounted sheets of mosaic tile were created. Hand-setting individual pieces of tile to create mosaic were no longer necessary. Also, higher kiln temperatures along with firing of glaze and clay at the same time made for more durable tiles. No longer just for artisans, tile became widespread both in decorative and functional arenas.


In the 1950s, ceramic tiles became ubiquitous as they were installed in a huge number of homes. In North America, glazed tiles in a residential setting were most common in the bathroom. However, at the same time, Europe and the rest of the world were utilizing affordable tiles in all rooms of the house. Tiles were even used in outside areas to construct porches, walkways, and other useful and decorative home accents. Canadian and American builders and designers grew receptive to this idea. Around the 1980s, North America became an important location for tile manufacturers.


Above: Antique Crackle Smooth Metro Tiles


Advancements since then have led to the common use of tiles in houses, no matter what their style. No longer just a staple for the wealthy, tiles are easily accessible to any builder or homeowner. Tiles are often mass-produced by computers and robots in many instances. For example, digital jet-ink technology is used to give porcelain body floor tiles and white body ceramic wall tiles the look of authentic stone or other refined designs. This technology is also used to make custom tiles. Using digital image capture, images can be prepared in any photo editing software. Creators can then fuse the images to the tile using either transfer under heat and pressure or a more traditional kiln technique.


Distribution of tiles and tile products occur all over the world. Major tile factories exist in many countries. Tiles are used worldwide for building, art, and a wide variety of other purposes. The wide variety of applications for tiles is one of the things that contribute to their continued popularity.


Tiles are a perennially popular building and decorative material due to their attractiveness, versatility, and durability. Tiles have existed since ancient times, and have been used extensively throughout their existence. With recent innovations in the industry, tile is only becoming a more popular option for residential function and decoration. Distribution of tile and tile products is a worldwide endeavour. Tiles remain popular even today, and will do so for the foreseeable future.


There you have it - a brief history of tile art and their construction! For more information about tiles and tiling, check out our Help Centre. It's the Wikipedia of tile knowledge!



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