The history of subway tile.

The sophisticated and uniquely American system of "subway tile" that became the national standard for all U.S. tile manufacturers.

The original story about “subway tile” begins in the late 1800’s with the advent of indoor plumbing and a demand for sanitary surfaces in the home.  A sophisticated and precise system of ceramic tilework evolved rapidly in England and America, such that by 1904 the NYC’s first subway stations featured these clean, glossy white tile surfaces as an exemplar of modernity.  Check-out “Remnants of 1904 Union Square Subway Station Hidden in Plain Sight” to see how the MTA is preserving this tile heritage.

Our story begins a century later, when the Subway Ceramics collection was introduced as the first complete and historically authentic American heritage tile collection since the depression.  The distinctively flat surface, pencil-thin grout lines, soft rounded corner trims and integrated ceramic accessories are a uniquely American invention, a system of tilework that eventually became a national standard produced by all US tile manufacturers.

A common standard evolves...

A remarkably collegial tile industry of almost 20 American companies, cooperating to serve the growing nation’s insatiable appetite for construction materials to meet unprecedented demand, collaborated on the physical specifications and nomenclature that became the national standard by 1920.  Every “whiteware” tile form produced and installed in a pre-war America home, hotel, or subway station, came out of that common catalog – a vast assortment of tilework that we reproduce today as the Subway Ceramics collection.

This journey of discovery revealed many insights about that special time in America and the contributions made by scores of newly immigrated and 1st generation Americans.  They brought with them the trade skills and apprenticeship traditions essential to sustain the construction boom of the roaring 20’s.



The 15-year history of Subway Ceramics

The development of the Subway Ceramics collection was a technical feat made possible through the dedication and technical resourcefulness of an experienced team of tilemakers, the collaboration of highly specialized tool & die makers, machinists, glaze chemists, and  the knowledge of experienced suppliers in all the raw materials that constitute the clay body and glazes needed to produce the collection.

The 2006 launch of the Subway Ceramics collection was just the beginning.  We soon discovered the integrated ceramic accessory collection from American Encaustic Tile Company, which by 1920 had become the world’s largest tile company.  Using 3D CAD and prototyping technology, we reproduced a complete collection in 3″ x 6″ and 4-1/4″ square formats. 

A "restoration" white glossy glaze was added to match the vintage patina of the original pre-war tilework. A complimentary series of glossy translucent crackle glazes followed, provided the perfect accent colors for simple liner details.

The addition of a complimentary collection of unglazed porcelain mosaics completed the 5-year plan to restore the period bathroom to its original character.  The Subway Mosaics collection now offers all of the same colors, shapes and historically authentic patterns found in virtually every period home and traditional building constructed in pre-war America.