From façades to floors, to fireplace surrounds, ceramic mosaic tile has long been a ubiquitous building ornament. Much of the ceramic tile produced in the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century came from Zanesville, Ohio—a (then-not-so) small town on the Muskingum River east of Columbus where a combination of coal production, rich clay, and access to water transportation created ideal conditions for manufacturing ceramics. Competition from abroad contributed to the local industry's decline, but it left in its wake documents and prized material that hearken to the artisanal craft in its prime.
Among Zanesville's major producers of the period—which included Weller Pottery, the Roseville Pottery Co., and Owens Pottery—was the American Encaustic Tiling Co. (AETCO). Founded in New York in 1875, AETCO opened a multi-building plant in Zanesville in 1892. Prior to its closure in 1935, the factory was billed as the largest of its kind in the U.S. and employed as many as 1,000 people. The company also had factories in California and New Jersey.
Demolition of the Zanesville campus, which hosted a string of other businesses over the last eight decades, began earlier this year, Mitch Taylor, the curator at the Pioneer and Historical Society of Muskingum County, in Ohio, told ARCHITECT in an email. AETCO itself existed as late as 1945, and was known for its molded and glazed art tiles (shown left) as well as for employing some of the best ceramicists of the day, including Frederick Hurten Rhead, creator of Fiestaware, and Herman Carl Mueller, who went on to found his own ceramic tile manufacturing business, the Mueller Mosaic Co. in Trenton, N.J., and received the John Scott Medal for his contributions to ceramic arts.
Though AETCO tiles live on—both in period architecture and on online auction websites—much of the ephemera documenting their production and distribution have been lost.
Charles Brownell, an architectural historian and emeritus professor of art history at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), in Richmond, Va., is among those keeping tabs on the trade journals, catalogs, rare books, and other documentation that offer glimpses at the historical material supply chains. Many of his finds have been donated to or acquired by VCU Libraries, which has begun adding them to its digital archive.
Among the recent additions is a 75-page catalog, donated by Brownell, that dates from the early 20th century. AETCO used this and other catalogs to get samples of its products into designers’ and builders' hands. The catalog features ceramic tiles mounted on paper to illustrate the range of patterns, sizes, shapes, and colors available as well as different lettering and numbering options. It's not that much different from today’s catalogs—just a bit heavier and in true 3D.
Check out ARCHITECT's favorite patterns below, or scroll through the full catalog on the VCU Libraries website.