About this site:‎ > ‎

The Identification of Antique United States Ceramic Tiles by Michael Padwee

        Prior to the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition the majority of decorative tiles used in the United States--encaustic floor tiles, transfer-printed and relief wall and fireplace tiles--were imported from Europe, mainly from England.  Americans, anxious to demonstrate their aesthetic sophistication, eagerly emulated the fashion for tiles that were lavishly displayed at the exhibition by English companies such as Maw, Minton, Doulton, and Craven Dunnill, all of which hoped to multiply their American sales.  Ironically, these exhibits, coupled with multiple American printings of Charles Eastlake’s Hints on Household Tastes, not only increased American demand for decorated tiles, but inspired American potters to establish their own tile manufacturing companies.  In the decade following the Centennial Exhibition at least two dozen American companies began to manufacture decorated tiles.  Some were already producing tableware or roof and drainage tiles, but many were new, established specifically in response to growing demand.1


        When collecting art tiles, a major question is the identification of the maker.  Many tiles have designs which can be found in reference works or manufacturers’ catalogs (if they even exist).  Some tiles can be identified by the types of clays or glazes used.  Two other methods which can be used to identify tiles are through initials, or a name or logo on the tile’s back; or through the key patterns found on the backs of many tiles.  There are problems, however, with all these methods of identification.

         In both the United States and England, for example, different companies used the same, or very similar, tile designs.  Figure 1a illustrates two transfer tiles that were manufactured by the International Tile Company of Brooklyn, NY in the 1880s.2   Figure 1b shows similar tiles that were

                                                                                                           Figure 1a                                                             

manufactured by the American Encaustic Tiling Company of  Zanesville, OH in the 1890s.3  It is not known if AET purchased the transfer plates from International when International went out of business or copied the design, or both companies purchased their plates from the same source.  It is also possible that many popular transfer tile designs and relief tile molds were taken by workmen, designers and artists who moved from one tile company to another.  One design was known to have been made by one American and thirteen English  tilemakers.4   

Figure 1b

          Jill and Brian Austwick state that “Even when a tile has a popular design..., problems arise.  Take [the] Industrial [series], for example, designed by Moyr Smith for Mintons China Works.  This [transfer series] is usually found on Mintons China Works tiles, either marked with the name or having a familiar back pattern.  But occasionally this [unmarked back] pattern is found with a Doulton [ink] stamp printed on the back; most probably because Doulton liked the design and sold it alongside their own wares.5  Sometimes companies also bought tile blanks from each other and added their own designs.

        Another well-known molded relief tile, “Michaelangelo”, the design of which was attributed to Isaac Broome, was also produced in England and the United States.  Figure 2 (below) is the Flaxman & Co. tile from England, which is identical to that produced by the Trent Tile Company of Trenton, NJ, where Isaac Broome worked.  It is also possible that Joseph Kirkham, a principal of the Providential Tile Company of Trenton, NJ, where Isaac Broome worked after leaving Trent, took some of Broome’s molds with him when Kirkham moved to Ohio and then to California.  Figure 3 is the back of the “Michaelangelo” tile, which has been attributed to the Western Art Tile Company, or to its subsidiary, the California Tile and Terra Cotta Company, both of which were associated with Kirkham.6


        Some companies, like Grueby and Van Briggle, use glazes or clay bodies that are easily recognizable.  For most manufacturers, however, these methods of identification require specialized knowledge on the part of the historian or collector.

        While a company name, initials, logo or brand name is often a reliable indicator of a tile’s manufacturer, there are instances when a trade name for one company is the same as the name of another company.  Figures 4 and 5 are examples of tiles that use the word “TROPICO” in their backmarks.  The Tropico Potteries of Glendale, CA manufactured tiles from c. 1920-1923 when it was incorporated into Gladding McBean & Co.  Figure 4 is the back of a Tropico Potteries tile, and Figure 5 is the back of a “Tropico” brand-named Gladding McBean tile.  Similarly, trade names such as “KAOSPAR” and “HERMOSA” are also found on the backs of tiles of different companies during different time periods.

        If you do not have a tile with a company name or logo on it, it may still be possible to identify the tile, or at least narrow down its identity, from the key pattern.  Key patterns are the markings found on the backs of tiles which are used to hold the tile to the mortar or adhesive on a wall or floor.  For over twenty years Peter and Diana Clegg have been researching the tile backs of 19th and early 20th Century English tiles.  The Cleggs have devised a classification scheme for English tile backs,7 which I have adapted and expanded for U.S. tile backs. (See the Classification Table)  It should be noted that some tile makers incorporated elements from more than one key pattern on the back of a tile.  When this occurs in my classification scheme, I have assigned the tileback to a single classification only.

         While some of the key patterns were used by one or two companies at most, such as the J. & J.G. Low and Trent grooved backs, the Kensington pictorial backs, and the Providential Tile Co. grid backs, among others, many other key patterns were used by more than one or two tile makers.  Key patterns, however, can be used with other means of identification to help pinpoint the maker of a tile.

        It is only now--after more than 125 years of the manufacture of decorated tiles in the United States--that tile historians, preservationists and tile collectors are looking more closely at the backs of these tiles to help determine the manufacturer, and we are now beginning to organize this research into a constructive framework.8 


1.  Padwee, Susan I. and Michael, “The Manufacture of Ceramic Tiles in Trenton--Part I” in Trenton Potteries, the Newsletter of the Potteries of Trenton Society, Vol. 4, No. 3, Sept. 2003, p. 1.

2.  Collection of Susan I. Padwee.

3.  American Encaustic Tiling Co., Artistic Tiles, AET Co., Ltd., New York, NY (Catalog reprinted by the Tile Heritage Foundation, Healdsburg, CA, 1990s).

4.  Padwee, Susan I. “The International Tile Company Catalogue”, p. 48, in The International Tile Company and the Economic, Sanitary, Social, and Aesthetic Context for the Development of the American Tile Industry. Masters Thesis, History of the Decorative Arts, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and Parsons School of Design, 1998.

5.  Austwick, Jill and Brian. The Decorated Tile: An Illustrated History of English Tile-making and Design. Collier Macmillan Canada, Ltd., Don Mills, Ontario, 1980, p. 126.

6.  Correspondence between California tile historian Steve Soukup and the author. (Just recently, however, a Tropico Potteries tile has also surfaced with the script “California” on its back further confusing this issue.)

7.  Clegg, Peter and Diana. “Back Chat, Our First Twenty Years” in Glazed Expressions, Newsletter of the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society, Number 48, Winter 2003, pp. 3-5.

8.  This Introduction and Table were adapted from the author’s article, “The Identification of Art Tiles: Key Patterns” in the Journal of the American Art Pottery Association. Vol. 21, No. 1, January/February 2005, pp. 12-15.

FIGURES 2 - 17:

© 2010 by Michael Padwee, all rights reserved