A Brief History of Hex Tile, the Turn-of-the-Century Bathroom Trend That’s Still Going Strong
I grew up in a pre-war bungalow house in Belmont Craigen, which is a bungalow belt neighborhood in Chicago; think squat little houses with bay windows lining the entire block, making you think back to a time of streetcars and phonographs. The homes there were mainly built between the years of 1910 to 1930 to accommodate an exploding middle class population in the quickly-growing city. As second-generation immigrants built familial wealth, they itched to get out of the crowded city center and move to a house with a small backyard and picket (er, wire?) fence.
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Bungalow homes were part of the answer to this boom, and when my parents moved into our particular house, very few updates, if any, had been made since the time it was built. The kitchen had steel cabinets, the dining room had glass block windows, and the back-of-the-house wooden sleeping porch was still intact. The thing I remember most vividly though was the bathroom’s hexagonal floor tiles, which were laid in a floral pattern and matched the blue tiles on the walls. These tiny tiles ran across the washroom, and I always thought they were unique to my house. So imagine my surprise when, decades later, I went to a house viewing in a hundred-year-old building (which would later become my now apartment) and saw the same tiles. They were a little worse for wear and definitely showed their years, but there they were. It made me wonder about these small hexagonal tiles and their equally-small rounded counterparts, penny tiles. How did they originate, and why exactly did they take off in bathroom design in particular?
Bathrooms weren’t a common house feature in the 19th century, but as running water and plumbing began to spread across the middle class in the early 1880s, the bathroom became more common, and its look began to evolve. At first, baths were primarily covered in luxurious wooden wainscoting, lacquered wooden floors, and ornate wooden cabinets that enclosed sinks and tubs. “As running water and plumbing infiltrated the mainstream bathroom, there was an opportunity to create a new space — a space that hadn’t been considered for design before,” says Erin Byrd Oliver, principal at American Restoration Tile, a Little Rock, Arkansas-based a custom ceramic tile manufacturing company that specializes in historic reproduction. “Before the hex tile floor was a varnished wooden floor, and that didn’t bode well with water from the new bathtub.” Seeing a need for a more durable material, Victorians turned their attention towards tiles.
According to Byrd Oliver, small circular and hexagonal (six-sided), or hex, tiles began popping up and were undoubtedly influenced by British Encaustic tiles, she says, “Both in the way they were made and in the way they made the new American bathroom feel regal, clean, and sophisticated like those fancy Brits.” This new solution was pretty, sure, but hex tiles at their core were practical, too. “Overall, your floor wouldn’t rot if it was covered in porcelain,” Byrd Oliver adds, referencing porcelain tile’s natural stain- and water-resistance.
By the turn of the century then, homeowners began to tile their bathrooms not only for convenience but also thanks to the rise of germ theory. “The tiled bathroom, with its non-absorbent and germ-proof floors and walls, which less than a generation ago was found only in the houses of the American millionaire, is now regarded as such a sanitary essential as to be specified by law… a tiled bathroom can quite safely be flushed out with a hose, and with little effort, it is possible to keep the tile floor as clean as a dinner plate,” The Journal and Tribune, a Knoxville, Tennessee-based publication, reported in 1907.
As populations grew, hygiene became increasingly important to stave off disease, and bathrooms were increasingly tiled with easy-to-clean, non-porous materials. This decorative phenomena became pronounced during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. “One-inch hex tiles on the floors and 3-inch by 6-inch subway tiles on the walls were less about the aesthetic and more about the functionality of cleanliness,” Byrd Oliver says. “As we can understand from our current pandemic, a focus on cleanliness and clean-ability were paramount. Subway tiles going up the walls had very thin grout joints, and impermeable porcelain tile on the floor mounted at a half-inch grout joint left little room for the Spanish Flu to infiltrate your home.”
Once that pandemic subsided, people began to tire of the super-sterile, all-white look. As a result, new tile trends began to emerge. “It all started with the white hex to impress others that you were clean, clean, clean,” Byrd Oliver says. “As time and tastes moved on, so did hex tiles. By 1910, pigments were available to make black, browns, blues, and greens, and we start to see the decorative ¾-inch square border emerge.”
According to Byrd Oliver, around that time, tile makers also figured out that iron oxide-based pigments fired at a very slow rate yielded a beautiful burgundy that you’ll be hard-pressed not to find in some border of a pre-war foyer in NYC or Chicago. “Notice the variation in the burgundy in any original NYC foyer border — there are light ones and dark ones and speckled ones and almost black ones — and those are the firing trials of gas kilns of the early 1900s making something new,” she says. These early trends towards color and inklings toward pattern were just the beginning though and only continued to develop. “By the end of the war, middle to high-class residences were putting their personal touches on their floors and personalizing their bathrooms beyond the basic white hex,” says Byrd Oliver. “By 1925, we see yellows, olive, and pink emerging, and by 1940, we see the full spectrum of colors emerging in bathrooms, foyers, and courthouses.”
The tiles themselves and their installation also became more hygienic in the 1920s and 1930s, too. “Tile manufactures made very small square and hexagonal tiles, which could be fitted close together (almost mosaic-like) with no gaps in between, creating decorative, hard-wearing, and hygienic surfaces,” says Hans Van Lemmen, president of the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society in the UK. While today’s applications tend to favor slightly more visible grout lines, it’s important to note that penny and hex tiles can bolster bathroom safety somewhat as well: You’re less likely to slip with smaller tiles and increased traction from grout joints.
Over the years, like anything else, classic penny and hexagonal tiles began to take a backseat to more modern silhouettes and materials. Bathrooms of the ’50s and ’60s tended to favor pastel square tiles, and shapes and sizes have continued to shift since then. As of late though, pennies and hex tiles are definitely experiencing another renaissance. Why this shift? According to the interviewed experts, this phenomenon has to do with both economics and nostalgia. More and more people, especially the current younger generations, are being priced out of new houses and buying older bungalows or craftsman homes when they can afford them, with a keen interest in restoring rather than gutting them. Though it’s possible to create elaborate installations with pennies and hex tiles (or to order them in pricy glazes or fancy stone), in general, they’re fairly plain and thus something of home style chameleons, which makes them easy to live with, even if you’re not looking for a perfectly period-appropriate washroom (like most of the modern bathrooms you see here).
“I think Millennials and Gen-Zers are pushing back against the Amazon culture they’ve been brought up in,” Byrd Oliver says. “[There’s] a return to products built with integrity and care, made slowly — by real people — that will stand the test of time. It’s a push against the quick-ship instant gratification that we Gen-Xers built.”
Ultimately, penny and hex tiles are practical, pretty, and relatively inexpensive, too (for a brand new bathroom renovation or a restoration), so they’re showing no real signs of waning in popularity anytime soon. The latest take on these classic but trendy tiles shows more colors than ever, patterns and even messages spelled out in tiles, and installations moving up the walls to create whole shower rooms.