Home Improvement History Lessons: Roofing

Posted on December 14, 2017 in Roofing Installation

roofing installation

For as long as humans have been around, we’ve built roofs in order to protect us from natural elements. Although asphalt shingles are the most popular material for today’s roofing systems, they weren’t always around. Instead, people built roofs from the resources they had. Here, our roofing installation experts share the history of roofing:


Once the earliest form of man realized he needed something to cover his shelter, he turned to sod layered with dirt and plants. While these early shelters provided good insulation, they weren’t very successful in keeping out water or pests.

The B.C. Years

The first roofing systems that introduced a type of “shingle” were in China, Greece, and Rome, about 4,000-5,000 years ago. These civilizations made roofing tiles out of clay and fashioned them into roofs because of their strength, durability, and resistance to fire.

Those who didn’t have access to clay or the knowledge to craft tiles turned to thatched roofs. These roofs were made from layered vegetation like straw, water reed, palm fronds, branches, and more. This technique carried over into the first few A.D. centuries.

Both clay roofs and thatched roofs can still be seen today on historic homes in Europe.

17th & 18th Centuries

Because wood was widely available in New England, early 17th century settlers turned to wood shingles for their homes’ roofs. Traditional wood shingles were created from large logs and were often 1/2″ thick and were planed or knifed smooth.

Slate shingles were also used to create roofing systems. Though these roofs appeared as early as the 1600s in America, quarrying didn’t begin until the 18th century and the material was too expensive for many. Though slate shingles became popular, they were largely replaced by asphalt shingles in the early 1900s.

19th Century

Once machinery and transportation became more readily available in the 19th century, architects were able to mass produce clay, wood, and slate shingles, making roofing overall more affordable.

Composite roofs also became popular in this century. These roofs were usually made of a felt or woven fabric that was covered with a tar-like substance. Later improvements included saturating the fabric with asphalt and a mixture of materials like sand, talc, or powdered limestone or gravel.

20th Century

In 1903, a roofing contractor and manufacturer named Henry M. Reynolds began hand-cutting stone-surfaced roofing into 8×16″ shingles. This is considered the beginning of asphalt shingles. In 1914, F.C. Overby improved the idea by added crushed granules of slate to weigh the shingles down to the roof. After that, the National Board of Fire Underwriters eliminated wood shingle roofs around 1911 and asphalt shingles gained more popularity. Once 1915 came, manufacturers perfected the mass production of this type of roofing and the industry took off from there.


Today, asphalt shingles are the most popular type of shingle for home roofing systems – they’re durable, long-lasting, and affordable. You can still find other types of shingles, however, such as cedar shingles on Cape Cod-style homes, clay shingles on homes in Europe, and slate shingles on homes in New England as well as European structures (like castles or military structures).

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