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What is Authentic Subway Tile?

New York Subway Station, circa 1905

Subway tile was originally developed and used on the walls of New York City's Subway stations in the early 20th century. Its flat surface, pencil-thin grout lines and coved corners allowed for easy cleaning and graffiti removal, giving it the name "sanitary-ware." The aesthetic of subway tile soon became popular throughout the USA in commercial spaces and pre-war homes because it embodied the clean and sanitized sensibilities of the Victorian era.

As subway tile's popularity grew, manufacturers around the country began to produce it. New shapes, sizes, trim pieces and accessories were introduced so installers could accommodate any space requirements. In 1921, the Associated Tile Manufacturers published an in-depth manual that standardized the specifications for all subway tile pieces. This gave manufacturers one standardized set of guidelines to produce a high-quality product, while providing consumers with uniform subway tile no matter where in the country they purchased it.

The demand for white subway tile began to change by the mid-1920's. Influenced by the Art Deco, Arts & Crafts, and Art Nouveau movements, sanitary-ware evolved with color, finish, pattern and decorative styles. These designs developed without changing the basic manufacturing process used to produce subway tile in factories throughout the country.

Specifications of original subway tile
Original 1920s subway tile was made to precise specifications that many modern manufactures do not adhere to.

The classic 3"x6" subway tile continues to be a popular tile choice around the world. Unfortunately, most modern-day subway tile has abandoned the original specification in favor of cheaper and faster manufacturing alternatives. This tile is not as thick as the historic tiles, the surface is not perfectly flat (they have "pillowed" edges) and they have been fitted with spacers which results in thicker grout lines. Many brands also do not offer the range of trim pieces and accessories that were once standard.

That's where Subway Ceramics comes in! Our collection adheres strictly to the original 1921 specifications put forth by the Associated Tile Manufacturers. Our manufacturing methods also reproduce those used in the early 1920s, including the use of original machinery and over a dozen hand-made processes. We are proud to be part of the American tile tradition by manufacturing all of our Subway Ceramics in the USA.

Whether you are looking for authentic subway tile for a historic space, or simply want tile that stands the test of time, the Subway Ceramics collection is the option for you. With over 40 historically-inspired glazes to choose from, and a comprehensive catalog of shapes, sizes, trim pieces, and accessories, the opportunities are endless. Contact us today to get started in designing your space.

For more information about authentic subway tile, please download our Subway Tile Primer.