A Brief History of Ceramic Tile Flooring


Tile flooring has been a popular choice for centuries and it can still be found in many homes and businesses today. They are used in churches, mosques, restaurants, hospitals, and in people's homes. They can be found covering walls, roofs, stoves, floors, and walkways all over the world. You may often see them combined with other forms of ceramics such as mosaic and terracotta.

While the actual origins of the ceramic tiling are not entirely certain, most experts point to ancient Egypt as the birthplace of ceramics while others point to ancient Mesopotamia or China. Throughout history Assyrians, Babylonians, and the Islamic Empire made tiles. Examples of early tiles date back to 9th century Tunisia, 11th century Iran. Many other middle-eastern mosques displayed Koranic scripts using highly colored relief tiles, which are believed to have been constructed in the 12th century.

What is certain is that ceramics have their roots in ancient Chinese pottery, which is estimated to have been invented around 20,000 BC. Tile flooring is closely connected to potter because most tiles are made from different types of ceramic clay. The Chinese developed ceramics and tiles from white porcelain, which they then decorated with painted images. This style was later popularized and spread throughout the world by Persian traders.

The ancient Greeks took the design of ceramic tiles to new heights by developing elaborate mosaic floors, which were often used in homes and temples throughout the Mediterranean. The Greeks often employed stones to create patterns and designs, as well as to depict images of gods or of the families who commissioned the works. Marble, travertine and other stone materials were often used, but ceramic pottery was also still popular. Much of this mosaic tile flooring can still be seen today and some is still being excavated. This should serve as a reminder of the strength and durability of tile flooring.

The ancient Egyptians often incorporated stone and ceramic tiling into their pyramids and other structures. The earliest forms of Egyptian tiling were crafted from ceramic clay and set out in the hot sun to solidify. As the process started to become more sophisticated and industrialized, they started to use kilns to heat and solidify the clay. Some historians credit the Egyptians with being the first to develop the method of kiln firing pottery. As with the Chinese, Egyptian ceramic kiln firing practices were popularized and spread by nomadic Persian traders throughout the ancient world

The earliest examples of ceramic tiles in Western Europe date back to the late 10th century, with examples found in York and Winchester. Glazed ceramic tiles were considered a luxury, which could mostly only be afforded by the clergy. By the 13th and 14th century Europe’s churches were being adorned with ceramic tiles. Throughout the 14th century tin glazed tiles spread from Holland throughout England. Moorish tiling slowly started spreading through the North of Spain from the 16th century onwards with some of the most stunning examples being found at the Alhambra Palace in Granada and the Great Mosque in Cordoba.

By 1584 the Dutch town of Delft had become a center for pottery and ceramics. Over the course of the next 50 years the city had solidified its reputation for excellence and had become famous for its signature blue and white earthenware, much of which we still see today. Initially more influenced by the Italian and Spanish style of Maiolica, the Dutch evolved a process of tin glazing which produced a distinctive effect. The Maiolica style displays a more lively sense of color and geometric design and was often employed as flooring. The Delft style gradually grew away from this more flamboyant style to the more formalist blue and white style, which was greatly influenced by Chinese ceramics.

The city’s ceramics industry flourished until the early 16th century when outside competition began to decrease profits. By the late 19th century there was only one remaining earthenware factory left in Delft.

With the Victorian era came the mass production of tiles and the increasing cheapness and accessibility led to a growing demand for the installation of ceramic tiling. Soon the process of encaustic tile production was popularized and spread throughout Europe. The process involves a combination of plain clay tile being stamped with liquid clay to create an impression of contrasting color and then firing the two clays in order to fuse them together.

This process was lost with the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid 16th century. The tiles from this period carried on the tradition of tiles initially installed in churches but soon started incorporating styles more suitable for public buildings and houses by which time the competition of rival manufacturers had widened the scope of production to include a variety of tiles intended for public use. These newer tiles were being produced in more technologically advanced forms through a multi firing process which widened the scope and variety of tiles offered to the public.

By the 1850’s, tile flooring was being installed in many royal and aristocratic establishments, stirring ambitions of an aspirant class to emulate their wealthy superiors. It was now possible to compromise on production costs by combining the relatively affordable plain square and geometric tiles with the more expensive encaustic tiles, this led to a popular form of geometric tiles being installed in the kitchens and servant quarters of many middle class homes. During this era it would still have been considered inappropriate to install the more fashionable and expensive tiles in a middle class persons home. However, when they were installed they would have been reserved for reception areas and around fireplaces rather than in bedrooms or kitchens.

Wealthier households began embracing the new Arts and Crafts movements and rather than using mass-produced tiles began using hand-made ones. William Morris and William de Morgan were among the designers of these fashionable hand-painted tiles and they employed a transfer printing and reproduction technique to obtain the turquoise and luster glazed originally found in Persian pottery.

Today, we see tile flooring all around us. Now, when you do, just remember that what now seems commonplace has a long rich lineage of artistry and craft behind it.


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