Myth # 148: Pan tiles (S-shaped roof tiles) were made by workers shaping the clay over their thighs.

April 7, 2018

Steve Herchak wrote: Hello again, and thanks for your fabulous posts! In my early days as a volunteer docent at a colonial house I heard for the first time something I’ve often since heard from guides, that being, that the curves in pantiles for roofing came from the workers shaping the clay over the tops of their thighs. The idea seemed absurd to my ears from the get-go that soft clay could be formed like that and somehow hang together and still keep its shape when lifted off and set aside to be fired. The idea of perhaps patty-caking the clay flat for something large like a tile on a surface of similar size such as a thigh was at least in the realm of conceivable, but why not just work it on a surface such as a plank or work table like dough for baking? But because I heard this from the mouth of a “top” guide and heard it repeated since, it keeps me from saying “absolutely not” to people who say “I heard the way they made those tiles was shaping the clay over their thighs,” even though, like the “old glass in windows continues to sag with age” myth, the mechanics of this one also strike me as impossible. Could you bring the hammer down for a verdict on this one?

Well, Steve, this is a bit esoteric, but I’ll give it a go. Please chime in if I’m off base on this topic. 

I’d never heard of pan tiles, which are S-shaped clay tiles used for roofs, especially in certain countries (Scotland and England) and in certain eras (Roman, then the art was lost until rediscovered in the 12th century). There is even a famous picturesque center of Tunbridge Wells, England, called “The Pantiles” after their quaint roofing styles. 

After doing some preliminary research online, which is all I can do for this topic, I can only say I believe this is a myth because it would have been far too laborious to be practical. And workers are practical, above all else. No documentation mentions making tiles on one’s thighs, and frankly, it would be a lot easier and a lot more regular (regularity being important for a roof that will drain rainwater efficiently) if you made them using a mold. Bricks were made with molds, other tiles were made with molds. Why would pantiles be made without molds on your thigh? Makes no sense to me. If I were in your shoes, I’d challenge those who say it to prove it with documentation or cease saying it. 

Thanks to a reader, I now feel certain my gut feeling was correct. Thank you, Joanna Kenny, for the reference to the York (England) Archaeological Trust technical report about tiles, which reads  on page 40: 

These tiles were made in moulds placed over a block or stock-table, both of which were coated with very fine sand, and there was a depression in the top edge of the block that produced the nib on the underside of the tile (Betts 1985, 535-7). The tile was then placed in a second mould and ‘washed-down’ to obtain its characteristic curving shape (ibid., 537). After partially drying it could be beaten back into shape if any warping had occurred while drying; the tile was then fired (ibid., 537).

Also check out these websites for more information on tiles than you ever thought you would need. This one, below says, in part, 

At first clay plain tiles were simple rectangles of clay with nibs pressed out by hand, and laid to overlap the joints of the ones beneath. They were generally 10½ x 6½ inches, which was a size that was not only convenient to press out by hand, but was also easy to handle on the roof. Less scrupulous manufacturers sometimes made them smaller to save on their costs, prompting King Edward IV in 1477 to pass an Act of Parliament laying down their minimum size. Today plain tiles remain standardised at 10½ x 6½ inches and are often referred to in the industry as “ten and a half by six and a half tiles”. Although this size has persisted as the norm through the centuries, in some places plain tiles were historically supplied in non-standard sizes; in York for example many of the older buildings are still roofed with tiles using 12 x 7 plain tiles. Where replacements are needed today for such odd sizes, manufacturers can usually offer to make them to those sizes.

More general use of clay plain tiles seems to have commenced in the 12th or 13th centuries. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, thatched roofing was no longer allowed in London and clay tiles provided an obvious fireproof alternative.

Overlapping tiles were first re-introduced into Britain from the Netherlands in around the 16th century. It was the Dutch nation that probably discovered the idea of linking tiles together using an ogee or S-shape, rather than relying on their vertical overlaps to prevent the ingress of water. This new design was effectively a Roman under and an over, joined into one tile. It was a clever idea, not at all as simple as it at first appears. Even today tilers who are not familiar with the way pantiles overlap find it a difficult concept to understand. In order to make them fit against each other from side to side, and also from top to bottom,  it was necessary to chamfer the top right and bottom left corner (shoulder) of each tile.

These tiles became known in England as pantiles, believed to be from the Dutch word panne (German pfanne). The advantages possessed by pantiles over plain tiles were easily apparent. While plain tiles were laid with their side joints merely butted together, pantiles actually overlapped each other from side to side. Because water could fall through the side joints of plain tiles, 2 to 3 thicknesses of tiles were used to ensure that they were watertight. Pantiles on the other hand only required 1 to 2 thicknesses at any point. It is for this reason that we refer nowadays to plain tiles as “double lap tiles”, but we call tiles which overlap or interlock with each other “single lap tiles”. To construct a roof using plain tiles you need 60 tiles per square metre, but if you use pantiles you only need about 15 tiles. The savings in weight and labour time are obvious.

The National Park Services, a site I trust, has a technical preservation website for this subject.   No mention of making the tiles on your thigh. (See below)

Historical Background

The origin of clay roofing tile can be traced independently to two different parts of the world: China, during the Neolithic Age, beginning around 10,000 B.C.; and the Middle East, a short time later. From these regions, the use of clay tile spread throughout Asia and Europe. Not only the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, but also the Greeks and Romans roofed their buildings with clay tiles, and adaptations of their practice continue in Europe to the present. European settlers brought this roofing tradition to America where it was established in many places by the 17th century.

Clay roof tiles and a roof-supporting post on an adobe building.Tapered barrel clay roof tiles were custom made for the restoration of the 1820s Indian barracks at Mission Santa Cruz in California. Photo: NPS files.

Archeologists have recovered specimens of clay roofing tiles from the 1585 settlement of Roanoke Island in North Carolina. Clay tile was also used in the early English settlements in Jamestown, Virginia, and nearby St. Mary’s in Maryland. Clay roofing tiles were also used in the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine in Florida, and by both the French and Spanish in New Orleans.

Dutch settlers on the east coast first imported clay tiles from Holland. By 1650, they had established their own full-scale production of clay tiles in the upper Hudson River Valley, shipping tiles south to New Amsterdam. Several tile manufacturing operations were in business around the time of the American Revolution, offering both colored and glazed tile and unglazed natural terra-cotta tile in the New York City area, and in neighboring New Jersey. A 1774 New York newspaper advertised the availability of locally produced, glazed and unglazed pantiles for sale that were guaranteed to “stand any weather.” On the west coast clay tile was first manufactured in wooden molds in 1780 at Mission San Antonio de Padua in California by Indian neophytes under the direction of Spanish missionaries.

By far the most significant factor in popularizing clay roofing tiles during the Colonial period in America was the concern with fire. Devastating fires in London, 1666, and Boston in 1679, prompted the establishment of building and fire codes in New York and Boston. These fire codes, which remained in effect for almost two centuries, encouraged the use of tile for roofs, especially in urban areas, because of its fireproof qualities. Clay roofing tile was also preferred because of its durability, ease of maintenance, and lack of thermal conductivity.

Although more efficient production methods had lowered the cost of clay tile, its use began to decline in much of the northeastern United States during the second quarter of the 19th century. In most areas outside city-designated fire districts, wood shingles were used widely; they were more affordable and much lighter, and required less heavy and less expensive roof framing. In addition, new fire-resistant materials were becoming available that could be used for roofing, including slate, and metals such as copper, iron, tin-plate, zinc, and galvanized iron. Many of the metal roofing materials could be installed at a fraction of the cost and weight of clay tile. Even the appearance of clay tile was no longer fashionable, and by the 1830s clay roofing tiles had slipped temporarily out of popularity in many parts of the country.



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