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The History Of Roofing Materials

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Have you ever wondered about the history of roofing materials? Us, too! Just walk the aisles of a home improvement store and you’ll find a vast array of different roofing materials in use today. While asphalt shingles are more common today, elegant ceramic tiles are also widely available and are a brilliant choice for homes. Durable and decorative roofs have been around for a long time. How did we get all these great roofing choices? Roofing has a long and storied history and has led us to the great selection of roofing material choices and styles that we have today. Let’s check out some of that history.

Roofing Materials at the Beginning of Civilization

It’s easy to assume that ancient man slept out in the open under the stars, or had protection from the elements inside a cave. However, archaeologists have found evidence of very early use of roofs made from a wide variety of substances, including animal parts, wood, rocks, and clay.

Whatever roofing materials they could find naturally in their environment was what ancient people were limited to. The Plains Indians made their tipis out of the skins of animals like buffalo and the deer that they hunted. There is evidence that mud and straw roofs existed in many areas of ancient Africa. Wood was also an option, but it was usually with another material, like mud or woven fibers.

Tiled and Thatched Roofs

China has a long history of advanced architectural techniques. Reportedly, they had been using clay tiles as far back as 3,000 BC. It wasn’t until the Ancient Greeks and Roman civilizations that tiles became common in Europe. Northern Europeans preferred locally available slate or wooden tiles, with wood being popular for the roofs of Nordic churches. Slate is still prevalent in Northern Europe and nearby countries like France.

By 735 AD thatch became common in Britain, but they also used it in many equatorial countries, like Hawaii, Bali, and Fiji. In Kenya, they made thatch from sugarcane leaves. Thatch is a cheaper alternative to tiles, and it’s also much more fire-resistant than wooden shingles.

Thatching remained popular in the 18th and 19th centuries among the American pioneers, as the materials were easy to find and install. They used thatching with a layer of sod underneath to insulate their rudimentary prairie houses, but these roofs risked frequent leaking and even collapse during heavy rain.

Southern Europeans typically used baked clay for their roofs, resulting in the signature Terra-cotta look of Spanish and Mediterranean architecture. We can see this history of early Spanish roofing materials in homes today.

By the early 1900s, painted red concrete tiles were being used as a low-cost alternative. Tiles have spread to many countries as the number of styles and colors expanded and homeowners learned of their durability and weather resistant qualities.

Asphalt Shingles

Brilliant manufacturers developed asphalt shingles in America in the 1920s. Asphalt is a combination of a base of cellulose or fiberglass with granules, including such ingredients as mica, oyster shell, slate, and clay, sealed with resins and polymer-modified bitumen. Different coatings, materials, and adhesives are used to improve durability, waterproofing, heat and cold resistance. Easy and inexpensive to manufacture and install, asphalt shingles quickly became a mainstay for many American homes.

Metal Roofs

We have used metal roofing throughout history for a good reason: it is extremely durable and can bend to fit the shape that’s needed. Until recently, however, metal roofs were too expensive. Because of this, they reserved them only for the wealthy or used them in important buildings like temples and museums.

Gold, Zinc, and Aluminum

It is rumored the famous Temple Rock in Israel once had a roof made of gold or at least gold-plated tiles. The Ancient Egyptians used aluminum and alum compounds to strengthen their roofing. They used zinc in roofs in the 1700s and it remains popular today as an alternative to copper.


Copper has always been a popular choice of metal for roofing because of its ease of handling and the beautiful way it ages. Around 300 BC, the Loha Maha Paya Temple in Sri Lanka had a roof made of copper shingles, one of the first known instances of this material being used in this way. By the 1400s, they used flat copper sheeting in Europe, particularly on churches. The castle Kronborg used copper roofing in 1587, and it didn’t require significant renovation until over 400 years later in 2009. 

In the US, American icon Paul Revere was also a skilled metallurgist. He established the country’s first copper mill near Boston in 1801. They used the result of his work on both state houses and the shielding on the outside of battleships. Revere Copper is still a supplier of quality copper today.

Modern Roofing

Today’s roofing materials combine the best elements of what has worked for centuries with the technology and trends of today. While things like local climate, local availability of materials, and cultural preferences still influence the roofing materials used now, buyers today have a ton of choices.

Homeowners can choose among hundreds of shades and styles of ceramic or concrete tiles, for example. Or they can select slate roofing, or choose a cheaper and faster asphalt roof solution. Metal roofing, like copper and zinc, is versatile, beautiful, highly durable, and highly energy-efficient, light, and recyclable, making it a superb choice for today’s green building trend.

They engineer today’s roofing products not only for more choice and selection but also for durability and versatility. Many more affordable choices are available now than ever in the history of roofing materials.

Final Words

The history of roofing materials is long. Roofing materials sure have come a long way. The choices available to homeowners can be a little overwhelming. We are here to help you through every step of the roofing process, from choosing the perfect roofing material to the final installation. Call us today at 636-699-0449 to get started.