The Surprising True Story Of How Subway Tile Took Over the Design World

history of subway tile - subway tile in a kitchen

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Trends come and go, but some design elements remain iconic. From subway tile to shiplap, there's a rich history behind your favorite décor ideas. Ever wonder how wishbone chairs started popping up in every dining room? Or want to know more about terrazzo tile? In our new series, we'll dig into our favorite design-world icons and uncover the surprising (and sometimes strange) history behind them.

It's hard to find a kitchen or bathroom that doesn't feature subway tile as a backsplash these days. Those 3" x 6" tiles have been a fan favorite this design decade, but how exactly did we get here?

"It’s really never gone out of style, and its popularity definitely predates farmhouse-style," Deborah Osburn, founder of clé, a handcrafted artisan tile shop, says. "In classic white, it has that slightly nostalgic or retro feel to it, and it projects cleanliness and crispness, which many people want in kitchens and bathrooms."

Though you may think these classic tiles originated in farmhouse kitchens across the country after several viewings of "Fixer Upper," to start at the real beginning we need to travel back to the New York City subway in the early 20th century.

Where it All Began

history of subway tile - man uses change system before boarding subway in the 1920s

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In 1904, designers George C. Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge were tasked with decorating the first underground subway in New York. Given the design sentiments at the time, having a beautiful station was a top priority. The Chief Engineer, William Barclay Parsons declared that the stations, as part of a 'great public work,' were to be 'designed, constructed, and maintained with a view to the beauty of their appearance,'" Polly Desjarlais, education manager at the New York Transit Museum, explains.

"Heins and La Farge had Beaux-Arts sensibilities and, like Parsons, were influenced by the City Beautiful movement, which believed that a well-designed urban landscape would lead to a moral and civic-minded society," Desjarlais says.

Heins and La Farge had Beaux-Arts sensibilities and were influenced by the City Beautiful movement, which believed that a well-designed urban landscape would lead to a moral and civic-minded society.

In order to promote beauty and cleanliness, Heins and La Farge designed the iconic bright white 3" x 6" tiles, just for the subway stations.

"The first New York City subway stations were tiled, a product chosen for their durability and beauty," Desjarlais explains. "Tiles proved to be easier to clean than other surfaces as well, though the bas relief ceramics that Heins and La Farge favored for decoration were harder to maintain than the flat subway tile."

On opening night in 1904, the subway was an immediate success with around 150,000 people crowding into the first 28 stations to take a ride, Desjarlais says.

From the Subways to Our Homes

subway tile kitchen with white subway tile

Design: Karen Swanson of New England Design Works, Photo: Jared Kuzia Photography

Once the tiles gained popularity in the subway, it was a natural transition for them to be added to kitchens and bathrooms of Victorian homes. In the late Victorian era in the United States, doctors and health officials were changing their thinking of how diseases spread. While they first subscribed to a filth theory in the 1800's (a theory that promoted the belief that diseases are caused by filth), by the end of the 1880's, they had turned to a much more comprehensive theory of how diseases spread, also known as germ theory, or the idea that disease is spread through microorganisms.

The new focus on combatting food-based and airborne infections like typhoid fever, tuberculosis, botulism, and scarlet fever ushered in a new sanitation movement. While national public health efforts earlier in the century focused on trying to clean up sewage from the city in support of the filth theory, once the germ theory was popularized, the late 19th century had a new zest for cleanliness and public health. This meant society was deeply focusing on identifying disease, isolating from it, and disinfecting, making it a perfect time for bright, white subway tiles to enter the stage (and the home).

"Subway tile has remained a North American dynasty," Reisa Pollard, a National Kitchen and Bath Association designer and the founder of Beyond Beige Interior Design, says. "It was primarily brought into Victorian homes as people migrated to the city. Even then it carried versatility, with a nod to historic elements and [the beauty of] its simple lines. Not only was the look of subway appealing to people, it also provided a double duty hygienic factor which was key, as people found it easy to clean in their homes."

Subway Tile Over the Years

history of subway tile - vintage kitchen with subway tile and red cabinetry

Design: Summer Thornton Design, Inc.

While first becoming popularized in Victorian homes, subway tiles never totally disappeared, finding success in Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements, Pollard says.

"[Those movements] were some of the first eras to utilize subway tile in new ways," Pollard explains. "Beveled edge tiles were introduced to add more dimension to the standard subway look. With this, it spun off new inspiration from across the globe. It has remained a mainstay historically in kitchens and bathrooms."

Though subway tile has been present in design for over a century, it wasn't always the tile du jour.

“It did take a back seat for a bit to flashier tiles, such as glass and stone mosaic tiles,” Osburn notes. "However, when the mood of design started to follow a vibe of clean, simple lines, bringing together minimalism and functionality without sacrificing beauty (aka Scandinavian design), subway tile took off again and hasn't slowed down.”

When the mood of design started to follow a vibe of clean, simple lines, bringing together minimalism and functionality without sacrificing beauty, subway tile took off again and hasn't slowed down.

Subway Tile Today

history of subway tile - modern kitchen with black subway tile backsplash

Design: Mark Cayen, Photo: Empire Kitchen & Bath

Now, it's hard to find a kitchen or bathroom that doesn't use subway tile in some shape or form from farmhouse kitchens to minimalist bathrooms.

"I find it is now enormously popular because of its variety of hues, size, durability, and price point," Pollard explains. "It can be paired with soft finishes to create a calm and comfortable environment, or it can be used alongside luxury to add dramatic punch."

Instead of the standard configuration (a brick pattern with staggered grout joints), homeowners are becoming more daring with patterns, opting for herringbone, vertical, or diagonal shapes.

"A more artistic and daring look is beginning to emerge from fans of subway tiles with more design intent," Osburn explains. "They’re using it on every surface in a bathroom (full walls and ceilings) and in kitchens backsplashes that go all the way to the ceiling (as they do in Europe) and even cladding range hoods.”

Color and style are also in play, with new hues and types of tile available.

"We still consistently use the classic glazed subway for our clients, but we are now seeing the trend leaning towards more textural, neutral, and hand-made subway tiles," Pollard explains. "We are very happy to see the subway tile keep its leading spot in the design world with updated spins on an American classic!"

So next time you see those bright, white subway tiled kitchens all over your Instagram feed and Pinterest boards, you'll have to thank the late Victorian sanitation revolution and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority for making this style happen.

Article Sources
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  1. Pennslyvania Historical & Museum Commission. "Late Victorian Period: 1850-1910." August 26, 2015.

  2. "The Illusion of Natural." The Atlantic. September 30, 2014

  3. Steere‐Williams, J. (2015). The Germ Theory. In A Companion to the History of American Science (eds G.M. Montgomery and M.A. Largent). https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119072218.ch31

  4. Center for Disease Control. "Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Safer and Healthier Foods." October, 15 1998.

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