Clay tile roofing can be traced back as far as 10,000 year B.C. to Neo-Lithic China and the Middle East. From these early beginnings, clay tile roofing expanded into Asia and west-ward into Europe. Ancient Greece and even more ancient Babylon would stand as some of the best very-old-world examples of clay tile roofing done right.
And, like so much else, 17th century New World bound settlers brought the practice and art of clay tile roofing to the United States. Thanks in no small part to Dutch traders who imported the product from Holland for distribution. As popularity grew and demand rose, clay roofing tiles would eventually be fabricated locally in the Hudson River Valley and distributed southward to New Amsterdam and beyond.
In fact, dating to as early as 1585, remnants of clay tile roofs have been found in Roanoke, Virginia, North Carolina, and early English settlements throughout Jamestown, Virginia, and Maryland. Spanish and French settlements common during Florida and Louisiana’s colonial era famously used clay tile roofing materials, some of which are currently popular tourist destinations.
This early popularity owes much to clay tile’s natural fire resistance. Increasingly dense and populace urban centers are more fire prone than their ancient predecessors and poor building manufacture has contributed to countless deaths from fire. The Boston Fire of 1679, for example, compelled the first building codes in New York and Boston. These codes encouraged the adoption of clay roofing tiles to control the spread of urban fires.
Besides, clay roof tile’s naturally low thermal conductivity makes it a great insulator and good protection against any New England winter.
However, by the early nineteenth century, new roofing materials – such as slate, copper, and wood shingles – were gaining in popularity. Often cheaper, easier to install, and increasingly fashionable, these “new” materials gained market share. The clay tile recession would reverse by the middle-19th century, as Italianate Villa style buildings rose in popularity through the Eastern United States. By the 1870s, large scale factories in Akron, Ohio, and Baltimore, Maryland, had been completely revitalized for a new era of clay tile roofing.
Indeed, clay tile roofing proved so popular that new styles, colors, and textures were invented to meet novel market demands and frequently changing architectural tastes. And with those needs, new clay-tile alternatives sprung up – including metal sheeting made to resemble clay tile roofs and eventually plastic.
Romantic Revival architecture in America advanced clay tile roof demand into the 20th century, as well as an expansive new selection of factories to produce and market to America’s intense roofing tastes.
Despite this variety, surviving and contemporary clay tiles comes in essentially two styles: interlocking and overlapping. Both styles must be fastened to the roof with nails. Terra cotta red is probably the most recognizable, and obviously clay, color choice; the unique hue owing to the iron oxide inherent in most clay. Depending on the amount of iron, the clay tile produced will have a deeper (more iron) or lighter (less) color once fired. Additives, like manganese, can alter the outcome color and glazing can also be used to change the natural color and texture completely.