encaustic tiles

Encaustic tiles and President McKinley


Earlier this year, several hundred tiles on the kitchen, pantry, and servants’ hallway floors were reset, having broken loose from years of heavy traffic.  It had long been assumed that the tiles were English Minton, but an examination of the backside of one of the tiles revealed that they were American made encaustic tiles.

Encaustic tiles are tiles in which the pattern or figure on the surface is not a product of the glaze but of different colors of clay. They are usually of two colors but a tile may be composed of as many as six. The pattern is inlaid into the body of the tile, so that the design remains as the tile is worn down. Encaustic tiles may be glazed or unglazed and the inlay may be as shallow as an eighth of an inch, as is often the case with "printed" encaustic tile from the later medieval period, or as deep as a quarter inch.

The tiles in the Glessner kitchen are unglazed and in solid colors – terra cotta, tan, and gray.  The only pattern present results from the arrangement of the tiles, producing a checkboard pattern in the middle of the floor and a simple but pleasing border around the sides of the rooms.

The tiles were manufactured by the American Encaustic Tiling Company, at one time reported to be the largest tile manufactory in the world.  The company was founded in Zanesville Ohio (the town where John Glessner was born and raised) in 1874, initially operating under the name Fischer and Lansing Tile Company. The American name was adopted in 1876, and in 1881 they opened a showroom in New York.  In addition to dust-pressed encaustic floor tiles and standard utilitarian wall tiles, the company produced a wide variety of decorative art tiles as it rapidly grew and expanded its facilities.  

By 1890 an enlarged factory was required, and the founders, based in New York, wanted to build it in New Jersey. The people of Zanesville, anxious to keep the company (and jobs) in their town, responded by passing a $40,000 bond to purchase land for the company adjacent to the Muskingum River and close to the local railroad.

The new plant was completed in two years and dedicated on April 19, 1892 with a celebration the likes of which was rarely seen at that time. 20,000 people attended the festivities arriving by foot, train, boat and horse-drawn carriage. Governor William McKinley (later President of the United States) was on hand to congratulate the citizenry for their foresight in maintaining this great company, which remained a boon to their community for the next forty years. The firm produced the famous nursery tiles designed by Walter Crane, and later hired Frederick H. Rhead (a major figure in American ceramics history) to head its research.  The Zanesville plant closed in 1935, a victim of the Great Depression, and the assets were acquired by the Shawnee Pottery Company.  Although American Encaustic no longer exists as such, it can be traced through a series of mergers and takeovers to the present firm of Daltile.

An interesting side note – John Glessner’s sister Mary, married Thomas Kimball and they built their home (shown above) in Canton Ohio which they subsequently sold to William McKinley.  It was from this home that he accepted the nomination for President of the United States.  The home no longer stands.