As a staple of kitchen and bath design, the ubiquitous ceramic subway tile has been around since it was introduced in New York City’s subway stations in the early 1900s. The easy-to-clean, stain-resistant, light-reflective, 3-by-6-inch glazed white rectangles captured the public’s imagination back then and quickly moved into the bathrooms and kitchens of prewar houses for practical and aesthetic reasons.
More than a century later, ceramic subway tile still endures as a perennial favorite for homeowners. Today’s tiles come in a mind-boggling array of colors and finishes that partner well with just about any style of decor. And they’ve made the leap from kitchens and baths to other hardworking spaces that benefit from easy-care surfaces, such as laundry rooms, mudrooms, and fireplace surrounds.
Inevitably, the popularity of subway tile has expanded its working definition. Manufacturers often use the term now to describe any rectangular tile with a length twice its height, from 4-by-8-inch planks to 1-by-2 mosaics, and even some tiles (such as contemporary 2-by-8 strips) that don’t share the original’s proportions at all.
They’re tough enough to take a beating for decades—in fact, the adhesive, grout, and caulk used to install them will likely need replacing long before the tiles do.