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A Brief History of Ornamental Tiles in America

The first wall and paving tiles in America were probably made at the factory of Abraham Miller in Philadelphia. In about 1845 one of Mr. Miller's workmen Mr. Thomas F. Darrah, made some Eockingham tiles of large size, probably measuring 9 x 18 inches, which were used for facing the outside of the warehouse. Mr. Darragh also produced some mottled tiles of various colors for paving in front of Mr. Miller's residence, on the nort side of Spruce Street, east of Broad. Miller was making at the time an octagonal spitton for the market. By cutting these horizontally in half he procured an ornamental pattern of novel effect which he utilized as wall tiles, by forming a border of them around the ceiling of his office. Quite an original idea.

At the United States Pottery, Bennington, VT., experiments were made with inlaid tiles in 1853, and a sufficient number were produced ti cover a floor space of seven feet quare, underlying the exhibit of this factory at the Crystal Palace Exhibition which was held in New York City in that year. These tiles were about 10 inchees square and made by the wet clay process. The body was white, inlaid with variegated colors, the designs consisting of ornamental centerpiece and border with the American flag in each corner. It is not known what disposition was made of this tile floor after the exposoition, and it seems that the difficulties encountered in making these examples deterred the company from continuing experiments further in this direction.

Previous to 1872, Messrs. Hyzer & Lewellen, of Philadelphia were experimenting in floor tiles. Their first efforts were directed to the manufacture of encaustic tiles of geometric shapes, - square, diamond and triangular, - with natural and artificially colored American clays, mainly buff, red and black, the designs being inlaid to the depth of about a quarter of an inch. While these attempts proved partially successful, the wet-clay method employed at that time was unsatisfactory, because the shrinkage was found to be irregular and the pieces came from the kiln of different thickness. The next experiments were made by the damp-dust process, which has been employed ever since.

There were two forms of geometric tile made previous to 1876. They are plain tiles of yellow clay, of great hardness, the glaze also being hard and entirely free from "crazing"' . A hexagonal specimen was decorated with painted designs above the glaze, consisting of a green vine on a buff ground, with a red center outlined in black. A lozenge-shaped example was painted with a black device on a lemon ground.

The Low Art Tile Company

Mr. John G. Low, the founder of the Low Art Tile Works, was born in Chelsea, Mass., in 1835, where five generations of the same name preceded him. From the age of sixteen until the year 1877 he devoted himself to various lines of painting, commencing with fresco and decorative work. In 1858 he went to Paris, where he studied with Thomas Couture and with M. Troyon, the celebrated cattle painter for three years. In 1877 he became deeply interested in ceramic manufactures, and, in the following year formed a copartnership with his father, Hon. John Low, and at once commenced the erection of a tile manufacturory in his native place. Having never seen a tile made in any factory, he began wxperimenting on purely original lines and soon overcame the mechanical diffiulties which oresented themselves. A novel method was resorted to in the ornamentation of his earlier productions, which he patented and called the "natural" process. To secure accurate impressions of delicate objects, such as grasses, leaves, laces, etc., the article to be reproduced was placed on the surface of the lightly shaped and unburned tile and was forced into the clay by a screw press. On this impression was spread a piece of tissue paper, and over this was piled a quantity of the prepared dust, which was subjected to a second pressure. The tile, or pair of tiles, of double thickness, was then separated and the paper removed, when the impressions of these objects appeared in relief and intaglio showing every minute detail of marking. These Mr. Low called "natural tiles".

The method employed in making embossed or relief tiles that came to be used by all tile works in this country, was patented by Mr. Richard Prosser, in England, in 1840, for making buttons, and shortly after applied by Mr. J. M. Blashfield to the manufacture of tiles, called the "dust " process, which consists in slightly moistening the dry, powdered clay and subjecting it to great pressure in dies containing the designs to be impressed upon them. They are then burned and afterwards glazed or enamelled in delicate colors.

In a little more than a year after the works were started, Low was competing with English tilemakers at the Exhibition at Crewe, Stoke-on-Trent, which was conducted under the auspices of the Royal Manchester, Liverpool, and North Lancashire Agricultural Society, one of the oldest in England. There they won the gold medal over all the manufacturers of the United Kingdom for the best series of art itles exhibited.

In 1883 Hon. John Low retured from the firm and Mr. John F. Low became associated with his fater under the style of J. G. & J. F. Low.

The American Encaustic Tiling Co.

Projected in 1875, at Zanesville, Ohio, by a former resident of that place, who, while engaged in business in New York, had succeeded in interesting some capitalists of that city in the manufacture of flooring tiles from Ohio clays. The first experiments not proving satisfactory, Mr. George A Stanbery, a mechanical engineer, who had been a commisioner to the Vienna Exposoition, was engaged to take charge of the works, and through his energy and ability, with the financial aid of Mr. B. Fischer of New Yor, the president of the company, and his associates, the enterprise was finally placed upon a paying basis.

In 1880 glazed or enamelled tile were first made here. Encaustic or inlaid floor tiles are made by both the plastic and the damp-dust processes, and the geometrical designs for these were prepared by competent designers, who are employed by the company for this purpose.

Relief tiles were also made here to a large extent, designed by Mr. Herman Mueller, modeller for the company who was trained in Germany. Special designs were produced in single panels, thwelve by eighteen inches, including female Grecian water carriers.

By a peculiar treatment, pictures and portraits are alos reproduced on a plain surface.

The Trent Tile Company

In 1882, the Harris Manufacturing Company was organized for the production of tiles, and shortly afterwards the name was changed to the Trent Tile Company. In 1883 Mr. Isaac Broome, who had been connected with the Eturia Pottery, of Trenton, returned to that city from the West to accept the position of designer and modeller for the new company. He continued in this capacity for about two years, during which period he stocked the works with many excellent designs, some of which are still being produced there.

The Trent Tile Company made a specialty of dull-finished or "Trent finished" tiles in alto-relievo, which are treated by the sand-blast process after being glazed. The effect is a soft, satin-like finish, exceedingly pleasing to the eye. This style of finish forms a striking contrast to the glazed and enamelled varieties also made here, of which effective panels, six by eighteen inches, in one piece, were manufactureed extensively.

The Providential Tile Works

Projected about 1885, production began in the spring of 1886. Mr. Isaac Broome, who had previously been with the Trent Tile Company, was the first designer and modeller of this establishment, and some of his designs were still in production in 1902.

The products of this factory were glazed tiles, plain and in relief. At one time embossed tiles were made in two colors, the raised ornamentation being of a different color or tint than the backgeound. Underglaze decoration was also employed for a time, but both styles were abandoned as unsuited to the American market.

This selection was adapted from The Pottery and Porcelain of The United States by Edwin Atlee Barber 2nd Edition. Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons in 1902. This adaptation copyright ©1995 by The International Arts, Antiques and Collectibles Forum.