Tile History

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• A Brief History of Tiles and Tile Setting

- John P. Bridge

Tile setters (mud men) are essentially masons, and masonry traditions go back to biblical times and beyond. Masonry is the oldest of the building trades. When humans first emerged from caves, the homes they built and occupied were of masonry construction. Mud and stone, with straw and sticks as reinforcing, were their materials. In truth, I don’t really know very much about cavemen. I can safely say, though, there were no journeymen masons back then. They were all apprentices.

The first clay tiles were produced seven to eight thousand years ago in the area now known as the Holy Land. And since that time little has changed fundamentally in the tile setting trade. The most notable historic event that comes to mind is the invention of cement mortar by the Romans.

New methods and materials have, of course, been introduced, but tile setting (despite modern efforts to mechanize it) remains a hand-operated, labor-intensive process, and it’s not likely to change soon. In an age when “downsizing” and mass layoffs are commonplace, tile setters have achieved true job security, working their tails off in the process.

Glazed decorative tiles are first known to have been produced in Egypt, and from there the tile making art spread to Persia and across North Africa. The Low Countries of Northern Europe somehow acquired the technology from Persia, while the Moors brought African tiles with them when they invaded Iberia (Spain).

It was aboard the ships of Spanish conquistadors that decorative clay tiles found their way to the New World, where they were used primarily to decorate the churches of newly built missions. A form of tile making had also evolved among the natives of North and South America at some point.

The first decorative tiles to appear in Colonial North America were imported from Northern Europe — mainly England — the Brits having high-jacked the technology from the Dutch. The tiles were too expensive for utilitarian purposes in the Colonies and were found almost exclusively in the homes of the wealthy.

Today glazed tiles, commonly called ceramic tiles, are used in an almost infinite number of ways throughout the world, and you don’t have to consider yourself wealthy to own them. In commercial buildings, where both beauty and durability are considerations, ceramic tiles will be found, particularly in lobby areas and restrooms.

There are few modern houses in the United States that don’t include a tiled bathroom or two, and fast food restaurants wouldn’t be quite the same without their quarry tile floors. Tiles are also the choice of industry, where walls and floors must resist chemicals. And the Space Shuttle never leaves Earth without its protective jacket of high-tech, heat-resistant tiles.

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