Ceramic tiles have been made and used by man for centuries. Colored glazed tiles dating back to 4700 B.C. have been found in Greece, that lavishly adorned the walls of homes and official buildings all the way to 15thC Byzantine Greece and its cities. Indeed, these bits of baked clay have been used for architectural embellishment everywhere from the floors of the Greek colony of Pompeii, Italy, to the wainscoting of the Alhambra, Spain.
But single decorative tiles have long existed on a more discrete level as well. Their best-known guise is, perhaps, the popular blue-and-white Delft tile, produced in abundance in Holland from the seventeenth century onward. Another blossoming of the art of tilemaking is less well known. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries produced a surge of creative tile work, spurred in part by the tilemaking of the Arts and Crafts Movement artisans in Britain, but widely evident in the United States as well. Hand in hand with so-called art pottery, "art tiles" – often more sophisticated in style and in technique than their European antecedents, but greatly indebted to them - were being produced all over this country. Although used as decorative adjuncts for facing fireplaces or tabletops, tiles also adorned walls, individually or in a panel - decor sometimes as prized
as paintings or etchings. A fascinating and enlightening survey of the output of American ceramic factories in their heyday shows the engaging diversity in technique, far beyond the expected norm. The molded, raised-relief method was a prevalent one in the late nineteenth century, along with the intaglio, or impressed, design. Bas-relief portraits - George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and assorted literary characters, among others - abound; some of them look almost like products of the then-youthful art of photography, because in the intaglio method, the "pooling" (settling effect of glaze into the
depressions), that creates shadowy tonal variations.
The nineteenth-century tiles also portray centaurs, muses, cupids and sphinxes - classical subjects were as beloved in ceramic as they were on canvas at the time. Other typical neo-classical scenes appear such as on a large twelve-by-eighteen-inch molded-relief tile with a purplish glaze, that depicts a nude seated youth extending a bowl to two boys who are picking and eating grapes. This elaborate scene - which would be worthy of a pediment if modeled in stone - was made by the American Encaustic Tile Company of Zanesville, Ohio, one of the largest and most successful tile firms in the country. One of their most prolific and sought after designed for American Encausticwas Leon V. Solon in the late 1920s, who used zigzag and floral designs in metallic silver, red and black, in the Art Deco manner.
By the turn of the century, relief designs give way to molded or painted decoration more or less, that is level with the surface - as seen on Solon's tile and on many other. A fine two-dimensional, rather than a three-dimensional,
effect was now being achieved, with emphasis shifting from a sculptor's surface to that of a painter. While the translucent, high-gloss glazes of early relief tiles did not disappear entirely, designers began experimenting with transparent, iridescent, crystalline, crackle and mat glazes. The shining glazes bestow something of a Tiffany-vase glow onto a tile's surface, as seen in a marvelous iridescent violet tile of a seated fox, manufactured by Pewabic Pottery in Detroit, or a silvery-blue and golden-brown tile of lovely abstract crystalline growths, made by Trent Tile of Trenton. Both date from around 1910.
Pewabic Pottery, like a number of ceramic firms, was founded by or staffed with a good number of women. Others include Overbeck Pottery in Indiana, begun by the four Overbeck sisters; Boston's Saturday Evening Girls Club, which directed much of its small output to the children's market, and the large Rookwood Company of Cincinnati. Though primarily known for its pottery, Rookwood produced lovely tiles as well. Among the examples, are several landscapes, a charming scene of two stylized rabbits beside a tulip tree, and the firm's signature tile - a rook perched on a branch. Rookwood ware is without a doubt regarded as among the most beautiful and distinctive. The glazes are mostly mat - delicate, opaque and of low luster - and the subtle relief contours produce a dreamy effect.
Distinctive also are the tiles of California Faience in Berkeley. These are characterized by unique brick-red relief contour lines and vivid glazes of rich
earth-and-sky tones - ocher, brown, azure, cactus green. Two roundels stand out: one is a desert landscape; the other, three stylized lilies, dated before 1927 and arrestingly Art Nouveau. Low Art Tiles and the Chelsea Keramic Art Works, both of Chelsea, Massachusetts, produced an amazing variety of tiles in the late nineteenth century. Among them are assorted landscape tiles: one ambitious and
amusing relief tile from Low Art Tiles depicts five hogs feeding at a trough. Another natural process Low Art Tiles’ piece, with a greenish-yellow glaze, is lightly embossed with a fan shape, a patterned circle and grasses, directly reproducing natural objects. It seems amazingly abstract and modern, though such tiles were created from actual imprints of leaves, plant forms and such; the objects were gently pressed into the clay and then carefully lifted away, leaving behind a true impression of nature. Low Art Tile Co. also produced lovely shelf clocks with bronze case and purplish tile panels.
One particularly interesting firm is Marblehead (Massachusetts) Pottery, founded in 1904 by Dr. Herbert J. Hall as part of a group of craft ventures for "nervously worn-out patients." Before 1912 mat glazes were commonplace at Marblehead - two fish swimming amidst seaweed are rendered in shades of underwater brown, gray and steel blue, and are reminiscent of forms on a Japanese print - but later, bright, tin-enamel glaze became the order of the day. Another Massachusetts firm, Grueby Faience of Boston, is perhaps best known for creating the market for the popular fired mat glaze. Its tiles seem to have a sturdy Arts and Crafts look.
The use of ammonia or strongly alkaline soaps on antique Glass or Crystal should be avoided. Extreme and sudden changes of temperature may also be harmful. Before using ice-cream platters, punch bowls, sherbet glasses or other pieces designed for frozen foods or chilled beverages, the glass should be allowed to stand for a few minutes in a cold place or held under a jet of cold water.
By 1930, the fashion for the art tile had diminished to the point where such tiles were regarded as merely utilitarian objects. The Depression forced many commercial firms to close, with art potters turning to teaching at universities to guarantee their own survival. Indeed, although some of the companies are still open, and studio potters still produce tiles, there is nothing like the popular demand and consequent mass production that existed from 1870 to 1930.
Yet another master of Antique Ceramic Tiles, Mueller, who came to America from Germany as a fledgling sculptor in 1878, established a cement business in Ohio in 1879, turning to ceramics as a medium in the 1880s. He designed and produced pottery and tiles for a number of firms before opening his own company in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1908. Mueller Mosaic, which remained open until the 1940s, created many of the tile designs for the New York City subway system. Small decorative tiles, however, were not the mainstay of Mueller's work. His foremost talent lay in ceramic design on a large scale such as tiled panels for both exterior and interior settings. Notable examples include the mural of Columbus landing in America, completed in 1899 for Saint Nicholas Catholic Church in Zanesville, Ohio, and the fifteen-panel history of the domestication of the cow, finished in 1930 for the Walker-Gordon Dairy in Plainsboro, New Jersey. In fact, glazed tile was used throughout the dairy, since it was felt to conform to the strictest sanitary conditions.
Some experts believe that Mueller might have executed a tile mosaic in Fonthill, the home of fellow tile maker Henry Chapman Mercer, founder of the Moravian
Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Mercer was an archaeologist and antiquarian; his tile designs derived from sources ranging from antique to medieval. The two men shared the same initials, and Mrs. Taft believes that the "HCM" signature on the last-installed Fonthill mosaic, and the style of the mural itself, would better be attributed to Mueller than to Mercer. Whatever the case, the very fact that the influential "rival" craftsmen were in contact with each other – and Mueller certainly believed in professional cooperation - is a fascinating revelation, indicative of the communal attitude that prevailed in the Arts and Crafts Movement in general.
Today, there is definitely a viable and renewed interest in tiles as a decorative element. However, antique ceramic tiles and Art Pottery created during the Arts & Crafts or Art Deco periods, has certainly come into its own again and are regarded as very desirable and a good investment.