If you ask us Subway tiles are one of the most versatile. You can use them in your kitchen as a backsplash, laundry room, bathroom or even office. And they are not so pricey.

For all the wild popularity of subway tile, it turns out there’s still a lot to learn. We’ve long known that subway tile is practical, timeless, and works in interiors of all types. But what exactly counts as subway tile? And, where
did it come from? We have to admit, we weren’t sure. So we did some digging.

1. It originated beneath Manhattan.

As you’ve probably put together by now, the first subway tiles showed up below ground—in New York City’s subway system. When it opened in 1904, designers Christopher Grand La Farge and George C. Heins were tasked with a tricky ask: design a surface that was easily cleaned, but would also feel familiar, safe, and friendly to city-dwellers using underground transit for the very first time. Their solution—tiles with slightly curved edges and a glossy finish—meant that the subway stations were sanitary, polished, and bright.“

2. You can catch a glimpse the first subway tile—in an abandoned subway station.

Sleuths and design obsessives who want to catch a glimpse of the first subway tile can secure a visit to New York City’s first subway station: the City Hall stop, now abandoned. The New York Transit Museum offers tours—but New Yorkers have been known to covertly stay on the 6 train to catch a glimpse, too.

3. It arose from an obsession with hygiene.

Subway tiles arose out of a Victorian-era fixation on cleanliness. Because of their glossy, glazed finish, they’re stain-resistant, easy to clean, and reflect light. They quickly earned a reputation for being utilitarian and sanitary, and became the wall covering of choice elsewhere, from baths and kitchens to butcher shops. Nowadays, these same properties make them a practical choice for modern kitchens, baths, and more.

4. The classic dimensions? That’s up for debate.

What exactly is subway tile? It’s a bit tough to define—especially if you connote subway tile with a specific rectangular shape. While the classic subway tile measures three by six inches, the definition is expanding. Nowadays, tiles that are twice as long as they are wide are generally referred to as subway tile.

5. It comes in glass and stone, too.

And if you thought subway tile could be defined by how it’s made, think again. The official definition is a thin, low-fired, glazed ceramic tile. But according to the Washington Post, those very first versions in the New York City subway were actually made of white glass. Nowadays, “subway tile” is available in a variety of materials, like glass, stone, and marble, just to name a few.

6. Grout matters.

After the thought (and expense) that goes into sourcing tile, grout may be an afterthought. But it shouldn’t be: the grout you choose could completely change the look and style of your subway tile. For the many considerations, from dark to light and everywhere in between.

7. The pattern possibilities are endless.

You’re probably picturing subway tile laid in the usual horizontal “brick” pattern. But did you know you can lay subway tile vertically—or even in a herringbone or geometric L-shaped pattern?

8. It’s not for floors.

The one place you shouldn’t use subway tile? On floors. Because subway tiles are relatively thin, they won’t stand up to the wear and tear.

10. It’s the design equivalent of a good pair of jeans.

It’s become a classic, like jeans and a T-shirt that’s for sure. Think of subway tile as a timeless, practical wardrobe staple that goes with just about everything. You can create a design statement with even the most economical tile, and dress it up or down.

Sources: Remodelista, Wikipedia, Mspace Homes

Photos by:  Maia Sokolic Skrinjar (Mspace Homes); Cody Ulrich (Feature Image)


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