Often they boast spot-on period fixtures, faucets, lights, and medicine cabinets, but are accompanied by a floor that looks as though it belongs in a 1950s science fiction movie—or worse yet, in the summer palace of an Italian baron. Their popularity began in England, thanks to the Gothic Revival movement, which reintroduced medieval encaustic tiles—individual tiles bearing an inlaid pattern in a contrasting color, created by the new dust-pressed method—to a receptive public.
As with many home fashions dating to this time, the tiles were brought to an American audience largely through Andrew Jackson Downing’s 1850 book The Architecture of Country Houses. Downing recommended entry floors tiled in marble or pottery for their durability, moderate cost, and “good effect.” His book makes direct reference to encaustic tiles—which at the time would have come from England in a range of browns inlaid with blue and beige tones (and would have been expensive imports reserved for the wealthiest homeowners); examples of such early installations can still be seen on the front stoops of many upscale high Victorian homes in California. The Philadelphia Exposition featured many exhibits of sanitary ware and decorative European floor tiles—including displays of encaustics by Herbert Minton, one of the architects of the Gothic Revival—and the buzz around them convinced their manufacturers there was a marketplace for such products in the U.S. Their early offerings dovetailed nicely with late Victorian-era discoveries on germ theory that would propel a desire for ultra-sanitary surfaces in kitchens and bathrooms, which made tile an ideal flooring medium.
Pre-mounted sheets of 1″ ceramic mosaic tiles (in a range of geometric shapes like honeycomb, pennyround, and square) made intricate designs less time-consuming to achieve. If your house is classic and clean-lined (say, Arts & Crafts or Colonial Revival), you can’t go wrong with a basic hex mosaic interspersed with dots or small flowers, and framed by a simple border. While they wouldn’t have appeared in many original bathrooms, their popularity during the Victorian era, and their roots in medieval England, make them an interesting historically based choice for homeowners seeking creative flooring options.
Whatever tile and pattern you ultimately choose, rest assured that if it’s rooted in history, it will suit your house better than any of those contemporary offerings that look promising in the store, but are a letdown after installation.