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.
The location of potteries and ceramic tile factories is dependent upon the ready availability of suitable ball clay (clay that balled or held together), kaolin (a white clay used as a filler or extender), and feldspar (a crystalline mineral), and an accessible market. Since the cost of shipping the manufactured products tended to restrict profitable sales to limited areas, this usually determined whether a factory would succeed. Although the United States Pottery in Bennington, Vermont, is known to have made encaustic tiles as early as 1853, the Pittsburgh Encaustic Tile Company (later the Star Encaustic Tiling Company), was the first successful American tile company, and is generally considered the first to manufacture ceramic tile in the U.S. on a commercial basis beginning in 1876.
At least 25 ceramic tile companies were founded in the United States between 1876 and 1894. In the East, several notable tile firms that were established in this period flourished in the Boston area, such as the Chelsea Keramic Art Works, the Low Art Tile Works, and the Grueby Faience Company. Other East Coast companies organized in the late-19th and early-20th century included the International Tile & Trim Company, in Brooklyn, New York; the Trent Tile Company, Providential Tile Company, Mueller Mosaic Tile Company, and the Maywood Tile Company, all in New Jersey; and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
Many factories were also established in the Midwest-in Indiana, Michigan, and, especially, in Ohio. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the town of Zanesville, Ohio, was the largest center for pottery and tile-making in the world. Some of the factories in Zanesville included: Ohio Encaustic Tile Company; Mosaic Tile Company; Zanesville Majolica Company; and J.B. Owens Pottery, later to become the Empire Floor and Wall Tile Company. The American Encaustic Tiling Company, established in 1876, was one of the first, and most successful manufacturers in Zanesville. In the early 1930s it was the largest tile company in the world, producing large quantities of floor tile, plain and ornamental wall tile, and art tile until it closed about 1935, as a result of the Depression. The United States Encaustic Tile Company, Indianapolis, Indiana; Rookwood Pottery, Cincinnati, Ohio; Cambridge Art Tile Works, Covington, Kentucky; and Pewabic Pottery, Detroit, Michigan, were some of the other well-known potteries in the Midwest.
Around the turn of the century, the industry began to expand as tilemakers moved West and established potteries there. Joseph Kirkham started the ceramic tile industry on the West Coast in 1900 when he set up the Pacific Art Tile Company in Tropico, California, after his company in Ohio was destroyed by fire. In 1904 the company became the Western Art Tile Company, surviving for five years until it went out of business in 1909. During the early-20th century, other companies were founded in Southern California, in and around Los Angeles. Batchelder & Brown, in particular, of Pasadena (later Batchelder-Wilson in Los Angeles), was well-known for its Arts and Crafts-style tiles in the teens and 1920s. By the early 1940s California had become one of the leading producers of tile, especially faience, in the U.S.
Ceramic engineers, potters and artists not only moved frequently from one pottery to another, but often struck out on their own and established new factories when dissatisfied with a former employer. Also, it was not uncommon for one company to reuse a defunct factory or purchase another pottery business, change the name and increase the product line. As a result, many of the companies in existence today are descendants of the early pioneering firms.
Image source: Ephemeral New York