Let the tiles lead the way: The history of New Orleans street tiles

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NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) - It's no secret that New Orleans has always had a lack of street signage.

Whether they were blown away in a storm or moved over the course of 300 years, before Google maps, navigating New Orleans was no easy feat. Let's be real, it's still no easy feat - unless you're walking. When you're walking, the blue and white street tiles can help give you some guidance.

But where did those street tiles come from?

The blue and white street tiles are now apart of the fabric of our city and the Instagram feeds of every blogger who visits New Orleans.

The tiles date back to the 1880s, when the city of New Orleans embedded letter tiles in city sidewalk intersections, identifying the  two street names. It was done for the slower, horse-drawn society that New Orleans once was.

In the more commercial districts of the city, you will see the name of a business embedded in front of what was, or still is, a storefront. Throughout the city, in all the different wards, house numbers appear using these same decorative tiles.

There are two types of tiles. The early letter tiles are referred to as the Belgian style tiles. They were manufactured overseas and imported to the city.

Belgian tile differs from the so-called American style tiles in two ways: the font and lack of a pinstripe groove or shadow line. The American style tiles were originally manufactured by the American Encaustic Tile Company in Zanesville, Ohio, and sold in showrooms in New York City.

The American Encaustic Tile company went out of business after the Great Depression. In 2002, Mark Derby, owner of Derby Pottery and Tiles stepped in to fill the void, but he really stepped up in 2006 when the city was still reeling from Hurricane Katrina.

"It was sort of a natural give back after Katrina," Derby said. "What can I do to help the city to rebuild? As everybody knows, the water meter covers were kind of being taken and street tiles as well other things were being lost."

Now, Mark helps the city rebuild tiles that cannot be salvaged. But he puts his own twist on the classic New Orleans artifact. You can tell Mark's tiles apart by his signature yellow lining around each letter.