History of Structural Hollow Clay Tile in the United States

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Published in: Construction History, Vol. 22, 2007, p27-46.


For thousands of years, clays have been used in building construction. A notable example of an ancient clay-based building material is brick, which has enjoyed widespread appeal as a basic construction unit. A much more recent clay building material is the hollow clay tile. Made of terra cotta, these structural units were a high-technology invention in the mid-nineteenth century and continued to be widely utilized until the 1950s in the United States. Since the 1950s, hollow tile has nearly vanished from the construction arena—a victim of the widespread and cheap appeal of concrete technology.

A high percentage of late nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings employed hollow clay tile in their construction. Unlike many architectural materials, hollow clay tile was often not meant to be seen—much like the studs in a frame construction. This lack of visible prominence coupled with a dearth of modern treatises on the subject has led to a general unawareness of the origins and properties of hollow clay tile as well as of its historical manufacture and use. These subjects will be addressed in detail in this article, followed by a discussion on current trends and future directions of structural hollow clay tile in construction.