A Brief History of Clay Roofing Tile
The origin of clay roofing tile can be traced independently to two different parts of the world: China, during the Neolithic Age, beginning around 10,000 B.C.; and the Middle East, a short time later. From these regions, the use of clay tile spread throughout Asia and Europe. Not only the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, but also the Greeks and Romans roofed their buildings with clay tiles, and adaptations of their practice continue in Europe to the present. European settlers brought this roofing tradition to America where it was established in many places by the 17th century.
Archeologists have recovered specimens of clay roofing tiles from the 1585 settlement of Roanoke Island in North Carolina. Clay tile was also used in the early English settlements in Jamestown, Virginia, and nearby St. Mary's in Maryland. Clay roofing tiles were also used in the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine in Florida, and by both the French and Spanish in New Orleans.
Dutch settlers on the east coast first imported clay tiles from Holland. By 1650, they had established full scale production of clay tiles in the upper Hudson River Valley, shipping tiles south to New Amsterdam. Several tile manufacturing operations were in business around the time of the American Revolution, offering both colored and glazed tile and unglazed natural terracotta tile in the New York City area, and in neighboring New Jersey. A 1774 New York newspaper advertised the availability of locally produced, glazed and unglazed pan tiles for sale that were guaranteed to "stand any weather." On the west coast clay tile was first manufactured in wooden molds in 1780 at Mission San Antonio de Padua in California by Indian neophytes under the direction of Spanish missionaries.
By far the most significant factor in popularizing clay roofing tiles during the Colonial period in America was the concern with fire. Devastating fires in London, 1666, and Boston in 1679, prompted the establishment of building and fire codes in New York and Boston. These fire codes, which remained in effect for almost two centuries, encouraged the use of tile for roofs, especially in urban areas, because of its fireproof qualities. Clay roofing tile was also preferred because of its durability, ease of maintenance, and lack of thermal conductivity.
Although more efficient production methods had lowered the cost of clay tile, its use began to decline in much of the northeastern United States during the second quarter of the 19th century. In most areas outside city designated fire districts, wood shingles were used widely; they were more affordable and much lighter, and required less heavy and less expensive roof framing. In addition, new fire resistant materials were becoming available that could be used for roofing, including slate, and metals such as copper, iron, tinplate, zinc, and galvanized iron. Many of the metal roofing materials could be installed at a fraction of the cost and weight of clay tile. Even the appearance of clay tile was no longer fashionable, and by the 1830s clay roofing tiles had slipped temporarily out of popularity in many parts of the country.
Revival Styles Renew Interest in Clay Roofing Tiles
By the mid19th century, the introduction of the Italianate Villa style of architecture in the United States prompted a new interest in clay tiles for roofing. This had the effect of revitalizing the clay tile manufacturing industry, and by the 1870s, new factories were in business, including large operations in Akron, Ohio, and Baltimore, Maryland. Clay tiles were promoted by the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, which featured several prominent buildings with tile roofs, including a pavilion for the state of New Jersey roofed with clay tiles of local manufacture. Tile making machines were first patented in the 1870s, and although much roofing tile continued to be made by hand, by the 1880s more and more factories were beginning to use machines. The development of the Romanesque Revival style of architecture in the 1890s further strengthened the role of clay roofing tiles as an American building material
Alternative substitutes for clay tiles were also needed to meet this new demand. By about 1855, sheet metal roofs designed to replicate the patterns of clay tile were being produced. Usually painted a natural terra cotta color to emulate real clay tile, these sheet metal roofs became popular because they were cheaper and lighter, and easier to install than clay tile roofs.
Clay roofing tiles fell out of fashion again for a short time at the end of the 19th century, but once more gained acceptance in the 20th century, due primarily to the popularity of the Romantic Revival architectural styles, including Mission, Spanish, Mediterranean, Georgian and Renaissance Revival in which clay tile roofs featured prominently. With the availability of machines capable of extruding clay in a variety of forms in large quantities, clay tiles became more readily available across the nation. More regional manufacturing plants were established in areas with large natural deposits of clay, including Alfred, New York; New Lexington, Ohio; Lincoln, California; and Atlanta, Georgia; as well as Indiana, Illinois and Kansas. The popularity of clay tile roofing, and look alike substitute roofing materials, continues in the 20th century, especially in areas of the South and West-most notably Florida and California-where Mediterranean and Spanish influenced styles of architecture still predominate
During the 17th and 18th centuries the most common type of clay roofing tiles used in America were flat and rectangular. They measured approximately 10" x 6" x 1/2" (25cm x 15cm x 1.25cm), and had two nail or peg holes at one end through which they were anchored to the roofing laths. Sometimes a strip of mortar was placed between the overlapping rows of tile to prevent the tiles from lifting in high winds. In addition to flat tiles, interlocking S shaped pan tiles were also used in the 18th century. These were formed by molding clay over tapered sections of logs, and were generally quite large. Alternately termed pan, crooked, or Flemish tiles, and measuring approximately 14 1/2" x 9 1/2" (37cm x 24cm), these interlocking tiles were hung on roofing lath by means of a ridge or lug located on the upper part of the underside of each tile. Both plain (flat) tile and pan tile (S shaped or curved) roofs were capped at the ridge with semicircular ridge tiles. Clay roofing tiles on buildings in mid18th century Moravian settlements in Pennsylvania closely resembled those used in Germany at the time. These tiles were about 14"15" long x 6"7" wide (36cm38cm x 15cm18cm) with a curved butt, and with vertical grooves to help drainage. They were also designed with a lug or nib on the back so that the tiles could hang on lath without nails or pegs.
The accurate dating of early roofing tiles is difficult and often impossible. Fragments of tile found at archeological sites may indicate the existence of clay tile roofs, but the same type of tile was also sometimes used for other purposes such as paving, and in bake ovens. To further complicate dating, since clay tile frequently outlasted many of the earliest, less permanent structures, it was often reused on later buildings.
Anne Grimmer is a senior Architectural Historian with the Preservation Assistance Division of the National Park Service; Paul K. Williams is a Cultural Resource Manager with the Air Force. Both authors wish to thank the following individuals for the technical assistance they provided in the preparation of this publication: Edna Kimbro, Architectural Conservator, Watsonville, CA; Edwin S. Krebs, AIA, K. Norman Berry Associates, Louisville, KY; Melvin Mann, Tile Search, Roanoke, TX; Walter S. Marder, AIA, Division of Historical Resources, Tallahassee, FL; Gil Sánchez, FAIA, Gilbert Arnold Sánchez, Incorporated, Santa Cruz, CA; Terry Palmiter and Sandra Scofield, Alfred, NY; and National Park Service professional staff members.