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Some say that in Europe, the first hydraulic presses for making encaustic cement tiles were installed close to 1850 at Viviers on the embankments of the Rhône, alongside the first cement works in France. I read that “from there, the outstanding durability and esthetics of this new floor covering led to rapid development from Lyon to Marseilles where workshops were set up everywhere”.
Alternately, the wonderful pictorial book, Barcelona Tile Designs (books) states that the first reference to the manufacture of encaustic cement tile is from the factory of Butsems & Co. (Barcelona, Spain), in 1857. At the 1867 Paris Universal Exposition hydraulic tiles were exhibited by Garret, Rivet & Co., also of Barcelona. You will find many of the regional terms for encaustic cement tile have some translation of “hydraulic”, perhaps in part for the presses required to make them, but more likely because of the use of cement and water, pouring a wet color layer. This includes “mosaicos hidrálico” and “baldosa hidráulica” in many Spanish-speaking countries, as well as “rajola hidràulica”, popular in Barcelona.
Later, Orsola, Sola & Co. developed more modern machinery and the capacity for mass production, helping to spread its popularity. Escofet, Fortuny & Co. began in 1886, became known for its innovative Art Nouveau styled designs and helped the rapid expansion throughout Spain and Latin America.
Even though “mosaicos hidrálico” as they are known in many places and are still used extensively all over the world, in the United States they are relatively unknown. Even the recent comprehensive books on tile totally ignore this entire category. The only decor books that seem to acknowledge encaustic cement tiles are pictorial books about Havana, Cuba, other Latin countries, and the architecture of Europe.
India has a region that is famous for this type of floor tile. Since the manufacturing of the encaustic cement tile does not require fueled heat, as the firing of a ceramic or porcelain tile does, it is possible for tile-making to be located in remote and rustic areas. Occasionally you see the tiles referred to as “rusticos”. In Miami and South Florida our tiles are called “Cuban tile”. And in Cuba known as Cuban mortar tiles, “losa hidráulica”, or “losatea hidráulicos” (hydraulic slab). The first cement tiles in Cuba were imported from Spain. Cuba may have been the second coutry in Latin America to start making mosaicos hidraulicos following Mexico. The first documented Cuban tile factory was in 1886. When it was founded in 1903, the La Cubana factory was the largest in the world. It also produced some of the best tile at the time. Aside from the obvious advantages, they also used mined sand (lower in salt content that can discolor the tile), and had numerous artisans who had worked for popular Barcelona factories.
In Italy this type of tile seems to be referred to as “pavimenti in graniglia” even though the term also applies to terrazzo floors. Also in Italy I see encaustic cement tile called “cementine” although the word in not in broad usage, as well as “pastina” or “pasta tiles”. To the Manilans this type of tile is known as “malaga”, and in France and Belgium is a direct translation to cement tile, either “carrelages du ciment” or “carreaux du ciment”.
Until the 1920’s, colorful cement tiles were considered high-end ultimate flooring that decorated the palaces of the Tsars, the mansions of the Côte d’Azure, Gaudi’s Barcelona and Berlin’s official buildings. Later on, the encaustic cement tile expanded as a creative and durable flooring all over Europe, and the former colonies of France, Spain and Portugal. Around the 1950’s, cement tile lost importance and was replaced by less expensive and less colorful floors. At the beginning of this century, the trend for authentic products and ‘green’ flooring has brought attention back to encaustic cement tiles. Recent storms along the Gulf Coast have raised awareness of durable, waterproof architecture. We hope to spread the word. We have first-hand knowledge of the need for sensible flooring in coastal Alabama. Additionally, this type of tile flooring is perfect for high traffic areas and any place where discriminating people gather.
It has never been possible to create an industrialized product that can substitute for this handmade tile. The variety of colors, the matte finish (though they can be polished and waxed), and the soft silky texture are characteristics that make this tile absolutely unique. It is very important to note that no two tiles are exactly alike.
Encaustic cement is flooring with character, of great quality, outstanding for its clear, bright finishes, excellent ageing process, elegance and nobility.
Check these antique tiles posted on Imelda’s Design Blog, from her trip to Central Java. According to the home owner, the tiles were already there when her father was born in 1922. She was told that the tiles have been there since the late 1800’s. Look at the sheen and the brilliant colors.