Subway tile is anything but an underground trend. It’s everywhere. It’s a timeless design element found in every design style from farmhouse kitchens to contemporary bathrooms and everywhere in-between. For the past century, ceramic subway tiles have proven to be both practical and aesthetically-pleasing.
Ceramic subway tiles made their debut in the early 20th-century inside New York’s subterranean train stations. On October 27, 1904, NYC opened the first underground line of the New York City Subway. Prior to its opening, the underground subway was outfitted with 3-by-6-inch tiles designed by architects George C. Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge. Heins and La Farge worked with the Grueby Faience Company and Rookwood Pottery (both prolific ceramics companies) to create heavy-duty tiles able to withstand frequent cleaning without losing their appearance. Besides the white tile work, Heins and La Farge were also responsible for the original mosaics (which are still visible at many stations) as well as a significant amount of the architecture work that shaped a number of subway stations across New York.
It’s doubtful anyone would haven thought these simple tiles would completely shape the design of kitchens and bathrooms across America over 100 years later.
For Victorian New Yorkers, the simple rectangular tiles were sleek, elegant, and clean–and representative of the brand newness of the subway system. And while we don’t associate the subway with cleanliness today, the simple ceramic tiles still retain their sleek, elegant, and clean characteristics. So much so that we use them in arguably two of the most important rooms in the house.
Following their debut in the subway, subway tiles began appearing above ground in the interiors of clean places. Bathrooms, kitchens, and butcher shops were all part of the new trend. This “sanitary-ware” embodied the sensibilities of Victorian living: clean and sanitized.
Besides its sterility, subway tiles became successful due to a number of other factors. For one, ceramic resists moisture and is, therefore, resistant to stains. Easy-to-clean materials are especially beneficial in areas that require frequent cleaning. In addition to resisting stains, ceramic also doesn’t retain allergens and odors–perfect for bathrooms and public facilities.
For many people, one of the ultimate benefits of ceramic subway tile is its cost. Cheaper than both glass and steel tiles, ceramic can help lower the cost of kitchen renovations.
In recent years, subway tile has had a huge resurgence–although it never really went away. We can perhaps attribute this revival to the volume of popular redesign and remodeling shows (like Fixer Upper) for putting a name to the trend and highlighting its versatility.
While we tend to associate subway tiles with the color white, they have changed since the mid-1920s. The Art Deco, Arts & Crafts, and Art Nouveau movements influenced its evolution. The once sanitary-ware is now available in a number of colors, finishes, patterns, and decorative styles to match your interior design dreams.
Sarah is a content writer and social media assistant with a BA in literature/creative writing from Wilkes University. When she’s not spending her days at work writing, reading, and drinking coffee, she’s usually at home reading, writing, and drinking coffee. She also devotes a fair amount of time to HGTV, drawing, and doting on her dog. As a creator, Sarah believes in emphasizing personality through design and DIY projects.