The murky history of New Orleans’ sidewalk tiles
For things set in concrete, the history of the iconic blue-and-white tiles that spell out street names at corners throughout New Orleans is surprisingly unsettled. It’s unclear exactly when city leaders gave the original go-ahead to embed the 4-by-6-inch, 1-inch thick, ceramic tiles into the city’s sidewalks, but estimates peg it to sometime in the mid-1880s. The distinctive markers quickly worked their way into the hearts of locals and visitors alike. In July 1951, May Genevieve Nelson summed up the tiles’ elegant but simple glory when she told the States newspaper, “They give the streets of New Orleans a warm charm and are very useful.”
In the 130-odd years since their inception, the ceramic tiles have become such a part of the city’s culture and history that tourists the world over recognize them instantly, while collectors, locally and elsewhere, prize them as keepsakes and collectibles. They are so prized and revered that local citizens speak out when they witness them uprooted or destroyed. In 1993, when a vexed resident witnessed city work crews destroying them in Faubourg Marigny as they made wheelchair ramps, she alerted the Historic District Landmark Commission, a representative of which subsequently told The Times-Picayune, “We were assured (the Street Department) would carefully remove all the tiles and replace them back after the wheelchair ramps are installed.”
- In the 19th century, when transportation was still horse-drawn, the prevailing wisdom held that street names set in the concrete below — as opposed to on elevated street signs — were much more suited to the plodding pace of travel then.
- A tongue-in-cheek modern explanation for the tiles is that they are meant to help people navigate the city’s streets should they find themselves crawling home after a few too many drinks.
- Initially, the tiles were produced using the encaustic process, in which the characters are burned deeply into the ceramic to protect them from wear.
- The first tiles to be installed were made by Belgian firms. Later, they were manufactured by the American Encaustic Tiling Co. of Zanesville, Ohio.
- That Belgium origin holds a clue as to when, exactly, the tiles made their New Orleans debut. In 1886, local newspaper ads declared that Prosper Lamal, a representative from the Belgian Encaustic Tile Co., was stationed in New Orleans — specifically, at an office at 15 Carondelet St. — and was ready to take on clients.
- That ad, which ran in The Daily Picayune in November and December 1886, quotes Lamal as saying, “I refer with satisfaction to work performed on the sidewalks of the Pickwick Club, New Orleans National Bank, Louisiana Exchange, and the interior of Crescent Hall. … I call the attention of the public to the elegant style of street directory as illustrated at the corner of Canal and Carondelet streets.”
- The tiles were gradually installed throughout the city. Tiles were laid in the Bywater in the early 20th century, for example.
Locals’ affections for the city’s blue-and-white street tiles run deep, as evidenced by the local artisans who forge replicas for sale and collection, including Danny Chinn at Preservation Tiles and Mark Derby of Derby Pottery, both of whom keep the flame alive with their work. In a 2009 interview with The Times-Picayune, Derby said that when he first started making them, he made crayon rubbings of existing, in-use tiles to get the design just right. He told Reid he feels that his efforts became even more vital after the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “Obviously, they’re part of our lost heritage,” he said. “There was no one making them at the time that I started.”