A Brief History of Subway Tile

updated Dec 23, 2023
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A white kitchen with floor-to-ceiling subway tiles and a small round kitchen table
Credit: Chloe Berk

Subway tile is riding a wave of enormous popularity right now, but it’s been around for a long time. If any of your walls are covered with those ubiquitous glazed rectangles, you have a little piece of history in your home. Read on for the story behind America’s most beloved tile.

What Is Subway Tile?

Subway tiling refers to a type of white, glossy tile that’s typically laid horizontally like stacked bricks. It’s most commonly made of porcelain or ceramic, but nowadays you can also find glass, marble, or stone iterations. Sizing and proportions vary, as well, though traditionally, each tile measures 3 inches by 6 inches. Subway tile remains a timeless, easy-to-clean design choice for outfitting kitchen backsplashes, bathroom showers, and even fireplace surrounds.

Subway tile in the New York subway today. (Many modern stations are covered in the 4\ (Image credit: Jorg Hackemann)

History of Subway Tile

It will probably not come as much of a shock that subway tile was originally designed to be placed in subways. Designers George C. Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge created the distinctive 3″ x 6″ rectangles for the very first station of New York’s then brand-new subway in 1904.

The Victorians were obsessed with hygiene, and one advantage of tiles was that they didn’t stain and were easy to clean. This is, of course, a bit ironic considering that lots of people nowadays think subway tile is “dirty,” precisely because they associate it with the subway. But for turn of the century New Yorkers, to whom underground transportation was a brand new concept, all that shiny tile read as sanitary and immaculate. The white tile also had the additional advantage of reflecting light, brightening the subterranean stations.

(Image credit: Antique Home Style)

Following the debut of the tile in the subway, it began to appear in all kinds of interiors: bathrooms, kitchens, butcher shops — any place you would want to be especially clean. (Keep in mind, this was before the subway’s ’70s and ’80s nadir, so the idea of the subway as a scummy, rat-filled underground hole hadn’t yet entered the collective consciousness.)

Credit: Nikki Shore

How to Use Subway Tile in Your Home

Today, there’s no shortage of subway tile styling variations, well beyond just the traditional brick layout. Try angling them into chevron shapes and herringbone motifs, or lay them in a vertical stack bond configuration. Or, go beyond the classic white finish and play around with various high-gloss color alternatives, too. You can even use multiple hues to create tile patterns, like alternating rows of stripes or two-tone crosshatch squares.

Consider different grout options to fill in between the rectangles as well. Traditional white subway tiling usually features a muted gray grout, but you can choose to go darker or lighter, depending on the level of contrast you want in your space. You can also experiment with colored grouts to make your subways really pop.

Is Subway Tile Out of Style?

Subway tile is currently back in a big way, although the argument can be made that it never really went away (it wasn’t nearly as popular then, but it still occasionally crops up in photos of ’70s and ’80s kitchens). It’s possible that there’s a little bit of nostalgia in the current embrace of subway tile — it seems to speak to an easier, more elegant time, and it’s also a great fit for the kind of new kitchens that are made to look old and vintage-inspired. However you decide to use it, subway tile is inexpensive, versatile, and, as we’ve seen, has a great pedigree.