A Brief History of Tiles

9th May 2018

Tiles have been used throughout history to provide protection against the elements and to create some of the world’s most impressive buildings – next time you have a few minutes Google ‘Gaudi’ if you want to see some impressive tiling – but have you ever wondered where the humble tile began? Let’s take a brief walk through history to find out …

The earliest report of tiles date all the way back to Ancient Egypt where historians found evidence of the most basic form of tiling being used to decorate the walls of some of civilisations earliest buildings.

Whereas today tiles are often installed for practical reasons, most of the earliest accounts demonstrate how tiles were used for decorative purposes as well as signifying wealth and power. This can be seen as early and the 2nd Century when the Kings of Sri Lanka used polished stones to embellish floors and swimming pools.

From the 6th Century onwards, tiling started to become more intricate and meaningful – images of Dragons were uncovered  in China and were thought to have been created to protect against evil spirits. There is also evidence, that during this Century, Greeks and Romans used terracotta roof tiles to protect their temples against the weather.

Up until this point, tiling was mostly contained to floors, however it was during the 9th Century that wall tiles become more widespread. This was most notable in Islamic countries where precious metals were used to create ornamental tiles and used to furnish mosques, palaces and holy shrines – even today, historians regard these tiles as some of the most beautiful ever discovered.

The next advancement in tiling happened four centuries later, when during the Middle Ages, people began experimenting with the size of tiles and started to mix different coloured clays together to create a variety of coloured tiles.

It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution, in the mid 18th Century, that tiles become more accessible for everyday folk.

Advances in industrial processes, machinery and technology, meant that for the first time, tiles didn’t have to be made by hand but could be produced quickly and cheaply on a mass scale.

It was also during the Industrial Revolution that transfer printing was first discovered – a process that would have originally been done by hand. This breakthrough meant that decorative tiles no longer had to be limited by simple designs and could not feature anything from floral patterns to religious symbols. Transfer printing soared in popularity during the 19th Century and is a process we still use today.

The introduction of mass produced affordable tiles, gave the wider population the opportunity to have decorative wall and floor tiles in their homes for the first time in history.

Today, tiles are still produced on a large scale and are now available in a huge variety of colours, textures and sizes. Their durability, affordability and accessibility means tiles are found in most buildings including our homes, hospitals, leisure centres, spa’s, retail units and schools.

Tiles have come a long way since Ancient Egypt – we wonder where we will see  them next?

Source: Hans Van Lemmen, Lisbon Lux.

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