The Tile

The Tile 02

I am one tile short of a full bathroom.  Which is very different from being a few bricks shy of a load.  But the first is driving me towards the second.

I live in a house that was built in 1958.  It is kind of average for its age and location, having been through a fairly major remodel or two, but with other features being largely untouched.  One of those areas is a small bathroom.

This bathroom has all the normal things a small bathroom does, including a shower with a glass door.  And having been built to a pretty decent standard, every vertical wall surface up to about chest-high is covered with ceramic tile.

Ceramic tile in 1958 was a very different thing from ceramic tile today.  Now there are somewhere between nine and ten million choices of shape, size, composition and color.  Back then the variety was in color.  Did I say variety?  I meant VARIETY.

I grew up in a house of about that age, and our bath was tiled in yellow.  I have seen green, pink, blue, turquoise and some other colors too, all in four inch squares.  The people who made decor choices for my house must have been pretty conservative because they chose beige tiles, with some brown speckles in them.  Which, as I think about it, is probably how they have managed to survive to the ripe old age of sixty.  Pink or turquoise would have been ripped out by about 1974.

There was one odd thing, the built-in towel racks were turquoise.  Mrs. JPC wanted them gone, an opinion that was not an unreasonable one given that nothing else in the room was that color.  And so one day I set to work.  Those towel holders were ceramic pieces embedded in the tilework, and it would be necessary to remove the tiling around them in order to get access and be able to patch the holes they would leave behind.

I had dealt with this tile once before, when replacing the green sink.  It may have once been turquoise, but it was certainly not by the time we moved in.  It never matched the towel holders.  A white sink replaced it, and necessitated the removal of a few squares of my beige tile, so I had pieces to fill the holes of the soon-to-be-ex-towel holders.

Everything came off nicely, as I was (in the words of Elmer Fudd) vewwwy, vewwwy keawful.  The turquoise pieces came out, holes in the plaster (yes, plaster) were patched, and everything started going back together.  The job was going fabulously and it was clear that nobody would ever know  that towel bars had ever been in those walls.

Each piece was carefully cleaned of decades-old grout and set aside, ready for re-installation.  Which went completely out drama.  Until I came to the last piece.  Which was nowhere to be found.  And it was not, of course, one of the four inch squares of which I had some extras.  No, it was the “bullnose” edge piece.

My children were fairly young at the time.  Everyone denied it, but I still harbor suspicions that one of them quite innocently picked up a piece to look at it – right before dropping it on the floor, cleverly hiding the broken pieces outside in the trash.  If Dad can’t find the pieces it never happened, right?  At least that’s the way I remember it working in my own youth.

The Tile 03

Surely, I thought, it would be possible to buy a piece or two of matching tile.  Yeahhh.  I took a piece to a nearby tile distributor (that has since closed).  The jocular fellow with a beard knew exactly what it was when I showed it to him.  “National Tile” he said.  “Oatmeal”.  “They’ve been out of business for a long time.”  They had a few stray pieces here and there, but nothing of this particular color.

I later heard of a place in another city, an old-time ceramic tile distributor which had been at the same location since the 1920’s and which was reputed to have at least a little bit of absolutely everything.  Absolutely everything minus one, as it turns out.  For something that had once seemed so common as to be the default generic tile in every motel room, gas station or restaurant I went into as a kid, this stuff had joined The Unicorn Club.

Perhaps, I thought, an ad in a neighborhood newsletter will find someone getting ready to remodel an old bath.  I got one response.  It was close – a similar style in a lighter off-white color.  So nope.

OK, I thought, there is an architectural salvage place downtown.  Apparently the people into architectural salvage lose interest in pretty much everything after the 1940.  So there would be no tile pieces from the late 1950’s.

I read somewhere that younger people are not into restoration of old spaces, but into gutting and complete remodels into areas that look like generic HGTV showspaces.  I can’t help but think that in about 20 years everyone will be rolling their eyes at the awful dated styles and sad about what was destroyed, sort of like I look at classic old homes that got heavy remodels around 1971.  Or maybe not.

So here I am with a missing tile.  It is behind a door, at least.  I am sure some of you would recommend re-edging with a different color.  Or just tearing it all out and doing a new HGTV-worthy bathroom.  But that seems such a waste to me, because I have this perfectly fine tiled bathroom.  I just need one itty bitty little piece and the German Farmer who occasionally occupies my brain says that tearing out several hundred perfectly good tiles because you are missing one is just wrong.

And so here I sit.  For much longer than I like to admit, becoming acclimated to something that I would never put up with if I were just moving into the place.  But I continue to put up with it because of my unshakable certitude that one day I am going to find that piece.  You probably didn’t realize that there was such a thing as an oatmeal holy grail.  But now you do.

18 thoughts on “The Tile

  1. It looks like there are people selling vintage tile on eBay. With a brand name and a color, you could set up a search and have them notify you if something shows up.

    I’ve had good luck with getting old car parts through specialty forums. Bet there’s a group out there into mid-century houses too.

    Or, put up a hook and just hang a bathrobe to hide it. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had not considered setting up the kind of search that would stay active. I do a search, find nothing, and turn to other things.

      The bathrobe idea is not a bad one. 🤔

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  2. Yeah, that was my first thought too. It’s not this?

    https://www.ebay.ca/itm/4×4-Vintage-Bullnose-Tile-in-Almond-1-Piece-Surplus-National/323795838050?hash=item4b63bc6462:g:h5gAAOSwikNcyz~O

    Some advice my pastor (who is also a wood turner) gave me; don’t think of it as a flaw, think of it as a feature. So maybe pick up a nice deep red tile for contrast, or an arty vintage German tile? There’s lots of Catholic themed tiles on Ebay too, the possibilities really are endless.

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    • Yes, I need to put more effort into this than it has gotten in awhile. I had assumed that this tile manufacturer was regional, but I may have been wrong about that.

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  3. My first house was built in 1958 as well and the bathroom was all tile, all the way up in the shower and from chest height down elsewhere. The floor matched the walls. It was three shades of pink. It was quite something. Then a slow leak in the shower caused the wallboard to disintegrate and the tiles to start falling off. We ended up tearing all the tile out and remodeling the whole bathroom.

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    • I think this is what has happened to 99% of ceramic tile ever made. I am glad your bathroom was pink. Had you said that it was the color of speckled oatmeal, I would have seen another missed opportunity.

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  4. DougD is onto something. A contrasting tile would be an elegant touch. Another option that is doable, has more flexibility, and would also work would be to find a white tile onto which somebody has painted a design, mini-mural, or some such. You may even go all extravagant and have “Cavanaugh” painted on it in oatmeal colored letters. Such things exist.

    Thankfully, it looks like the missing tile is of a common size. Cutting tile down to a size is always a dicey proposition.

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    • Your suggestions are probably better than going on a tour of the apartments in my daughter’s former apartment complex and prying one off to put in my pocket. “Gee, the bathroom tile needs work, would that be fixed if I rented here?” 🙂

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  5. If it’s simply a matter of matching COLOR, I would take an original tile to Home Depot and have them computer match the color and make a custom-matched pint of paint for you. Then paint the replacement tile and add some clear top coats to make it glossy. The problem is you have that “oatmeal” speckled effect, and you’d have to mix in flakes of that specific brown color. I’m not sure how you would do that.

    As you pointed out, things that were once common can rapidly disappear and be forgotten as time, people, and styles move on. However, the internet makes it easier than ever to find the obsolete/antique things you want. But ultimately, everything eventually ends up in the dumpster, crusher, or landfill. I recently read that 90% of all houses that existed in America in 1900 have been demolished. And a lot of those remaining 10% have been “remuddled” beyond recognition. So we’re talking maybe 1% to 2%?

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    • You are exactly right. There used to be a lot of houses in my neighborhood that were finally sold after the elderly original owners had died or otherwise moved on. This tile was probably used in 15 or 20% of them, especially with all of them having 2 or 2.5 baths. Most of them have probably been remodeled by now. My main bath had been redone before we bought the house in the early 90s. I would have no trouble gutting that one, a job that is on our to-do list at some point. It would be cool to re-do in vintage tile, but finding enough of one style would undoubtedly be crazy-hard (and crazy-expensive).

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  6. JP:
    Our house was also built in 1958. Our small bathroom, which is in need of remodeling, has what I believe is the identical tile, with several bullnose pieces. When we bought the house the kitchen counters and backsplashes had the same tile. Contact me at the email your site requires for posting and maybe we can make some arrangement.

    PS when one owns a house of this vintage, I call it playing “old house roulette.”

    Tom in Phoenix

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    • Wow Tom, that would be a coincidence. I sent you an email. I suppose something from a different manufacturer and a very close design/color might even work, I could probably peel an old one out of the inside of the shower or some other place where a less-than-exact match would not be as noticeable.

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    • JP:
      The personal email address you sent me is invalid or not accepting email from either Yahoo or Gmail.
      Should I try the address without the “3” in it?
      Tom in Phoenix

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  7. I am impressed by your industriousness and apparent skill. This task is clearly safer than your roof-climbing gutter-cleaning. If the space is appropriate and Mrs. JPC would not go for the hanging bathrobe (I wouldn’t), perhaps one of those round towel holders with a small hand towel inserted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You made me go look – one of those towels rings is in use, but too low to hide a missing tile. But moving it up and over could free up a piece that could be moved to the hole. Fresh eyes and minds always see things that elude the one who has spent too much time looking at a problem. This post has forced my attention back to this problem, so your suggestion may win the day if I still cannot find a piece. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. My house is 1967 and turquoise was all the rage in the 60’s. I had turquoise and white patterned tile in my main bathroom, but had it and the tub spray-painted white and it has held up well and was certainly a cheaper alternative to ripping everything out, or having Bathfitter overlay it for $3000. I like Annie’s suggestion or maybe a large picture poster/decor sign to hide it.

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