Discover 7 Little-Known Subway Tile Facts

Discover 7 Little-Known Subway Tile Facts

Despite subway tile being a favorite in design circles there remains a treasure trove of lesser-known facts about it. The Edward Martin team has always celebrated subway tile for its practicality, its timeless appeal, and its versatility across various interior styles. But what defines subway tile, exactly? And what's the story behind its origin? We realized that some of these details were mysteries to us as well. After some thorough research, here are seven intriguing insights about subway tile that may surprise you.


Train arriving at Astor Place subway station, illuminating the dark platform with its headlights, surrounded by white tiled columns and a curved yellow safety line.


The Origins Of Subway Tile Can Be Traced To Manhattan's Subways

Subway tile, as you might have guessed, first made its appearance in an iconic location: the subway stations of New York City. Introduced during the subway's inauguration in 1904, designers Christopher Grand La Farge and George C. Heins faced a complex challenge: create a surface that was easy to clean and also exuded a sense of safety and familiarity for first-time underground commuters. Their ingenious answer was to use tiles with subtly curved edges and a shiny finish, ensuring that the subway stations weren't just hygienic and sleek, but also well-lit and welcoming.


Empty subway platform at 168th Street station, featuring white tiled walls and columns, with a digital sign indicating train arrival times.


The First Subway Tile Can Still Be Seen In An Abandoned Station

For those with a passion for design and history, the original subway tiles can still be seen in a somewhat secret location: New York City's abandoned City Hall subway station. This historical gem is not typically accessible to the public, but the New York Transit Museum does offer guided tours for those eager to explore. Adventurous locals, however, might share a tip: some have been known to discreetly remain on the 6 train as it passes through the old station, offering a brief view of this architectural relic.


Elegant white subway tile backdrop with marbling details, highlighted by rustic wooden cutting boards on a marble countertop, conveying a modern yet homey kitchen vibe


The Cleanliness Craze Sparked the Rise of Subway Tiles

Ceramic 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 walls of modern kitchens, baths, and more.


Modern kitchen with glossy white subway tile backsplash, stainless steel range hood, marble countertops, and white cabinetry for a sleek, contemporary look.

Subway Tiles Are More Than Just 3x6 Rectangles

What do we mean when we talk about subway tiles? It's not as straightforward as you might think. Traditionally, if you mentioned subway tile, many would picture a classic rectangular tile, typically measuring three by six inches. However, the scope of what constitutes subway tile is broadening. Today, any tile that maintains a length twice its width usually falls under the category of subway tile.


Sleek white ceramic subway tile showcasing a glossy finish and subtle beveled edges, ideal for creating a clean and modern backdrop in any interior space


Subway Tiles Aren't Limited to One Material Anymore

If you're under the impression that subway tile is limited to its material composition, it's time to expand your perspective. Officially, subway tile is described as a thin, low-fired, glazed ceramic tile. However, a fascinating piece from the Washington Post reveals that the earliest subway tiles used in New York City's subway were made of white glass. Today, the term "subway tile" embraces a plethora of materials, including porcelain, glass, natural stone, and marble among others.


Richly textured green subway tiles in a matte finish, enhanced by a minimalist grout line design, create a vibrant and earthy backdrop, perfectly complementing the organic beauty of bathroom essentials and greenery


Grout Color Can Transform the Look of Subway Tiles

While much attention and budget may go towards selecting the perfect tiles, the importance of grout should not be underestimated. The choice of grout can dramatically transform the appearance and style of your subway tile installation. Grout comes in a spectrum of shades, from dark to light, and each color can enhance or mute the visual impact of the tile, depending on the desired effect. This makes selecting the right grout color a critical decision in your tile design process.


Richly textured green subway tiles in a matte finish, enhanced by a minimalist grout line design, create a vibrant and earthy backdrop, perfectly complementing the organic beauty of bathroom essentials and greenery


Alternative Subway Tile Patterns Can Transform Spaces

When you think of subway tile, the classic horizontal "brick" layout likely comes to mind. However, the versatility of subway tile allows for much more creativity in its arrangement. Did you know that you can install subway tiles vertically, or even in intricate patterns like herringbone or a geometric L-shape? These alternative layouts can dramatically alter the visual dynamics of a space, offering fresh and modern takes on the traditional subway tile look.


Elegant herringbone pattern of marble subway tiles highlighted by subtle gray veining, accompanied by a modern vase holding delicate greenery, providing a sophisticated and tranquil ambiance.



Subway tile, a beloved staple in the design world, carries a history as rich and layered as its applications in modern interiors. From its origins beneath the bustling streets of Manhattan to its evolution into a symbol of cleanliness and simplicity, subway tile has transcended its utilitarian roots to become a versatile element in various spaces. Whether it's the classic gleam of ceramic in a kitchen backsplash or the textured elegance of porcelain in a bathroom, the adaptability of subway tile continues to make it a favorite among designers and homeowners alike. As we've explored its diverse patterns, materials, and uses, it's clear that the humble subway tile offers endless possibilities for creative and functional expression in both residential and commercial environments.


Elegant shower with vertical striped tile wall in shades of beige and gray, complemented by dual brass shower heads for a luxurious touch.


Frequently Asked Questions 

Discover everything you need to know about subway tile in our FAQ section, from its origins to installation techniques, whether you're a first-time renovator or a seasoned designer.

What is a subway tile? 

Subway tile is a specific style of ceramic or porcelain tile that first gained popularity in the early 20th century, famously used throughout the New York City subway system. It is distinguished by its classic rectangular form, usually measuring 3 inches by 6 inches. Renowned for its clean, straightforward design, subway tile offers a sleek, timeless look that complements various interior styles. This makes it a perennial favorite in both historical restorations and contemporary home designs.

Can subway tile only be used in subway-inspired designs? 

Absolutely not! Subway tile has evolved far beyond its original, utilitarian use in subway stations, becoming a versatile staple in various design styles. While it retains its classic and timeless charm, subway tile can seamlessly integrate into a myriad of design themes. Whether you’re aiming for a traditional vibe or a sleek, contemporary look, subway tile can adapt to enhance any space with its simple yet elegant appearance. This flexibility makes it a popular choice among designers and homeowners alike.

What are the different materials available for subway tile? 

 Subway tile is traditionally made from ceramic or porcelain, known for their durability and ease of maintenance. However, the options don't end there. Modern advancements and design trends have expanded the range of materials to include glass, natural stone, and even metal. Each material brings its own unique aesthetic and set of characteristics, allowing you to select the perfect type to match your specific style preferences and functional needs. Whether you're looking for the reflective elegance of glass, the organic warmth of stone, or the sleek modernity of metal, there's a subway tile material that fits every design vision.

What are the standard sizes of subway tiles? 

The quintessential subway tile size is 3 inches by 6 inches, a dimension that has become synonymous with the classic subway tile look. However, the versatility of subway tile extends to its size options. Available sizes include smaller 2 inches by 4 inches tiles and larger 4 inches by 8 inches tiles, catering to different design preferences and scale needs. For those seeking a contemporary edge, subway tiles are also offered in larger formats, providing a bold and modern aesthetic. This range of sizes allows for creative flexibility in design and application, ensuring that subway tile can achieve the desired impact in any space.

How should subway tile be installed? 

Subway tile installation can be tailored through various patterns to match any design vision. The classic running bond pattern, also known as the brick pattern, remains a popular choice for its timeless appeal. For a more dynamic aesthetic, the herringbone pattern offers a distinctive twist. Typically, subway tiles are installed using thinset mortar to ensure a strong bond to the surface, followed by grouting to complete the elegant and clean finish.

While DIY enthusiasts might be tempted to tackle subway tile installation themselves, it’s advisable to hire a professional installer. A skilled professional will ensure the installation is not only visually pleasing but also durable and correctly aligned, guaranteeing a superior result that lasts for years.

Can subway tile be used in areas other than the kitchen and bathroom?
Subway tile, crafted from ceramic or porcelain, offers versatile design solutions far beyond its traditional uses in kitchens and bathrooms. Its adaptability makes it an excellent choice for laundry rooms, mudrooms, and even as chic surrounds for fireplaces. However, it's essential to ensure that the tiles are appropriately rated for their specific applications. Whether updating a residential space or outfitting a commercial area, ceramic or porcelain subway tile combines functionality with style, seamlessly maintaining a cohesive aesthetic throughout any property. This versatility makes it ideal for various settings, confirming its broad utility and appeal.

Is subway tile easy to clean and maintain? 

Subway tile is renowned for its ease of cleaning and low maintenance, particularly when it comes to varieties made from ceramic and porcelain. These materials are non-porous and resist stains excellently, minimizing the effort required to maintain their appearance. For regular upkeep, simply wiping them down with a mild detergent and a soft, non-abrasive cloth is typically enough to keep your subway tiles sparkling clean. This makes them an ideal choice for busy spaces where practicality and aesthetics are both priorities. This cleaning method is a suggestion; for best results and to ensure the longevity of your subway tiles, it is advisable to follow the manufacturer's recommendations.

Can subway tile be used outdoors? 

Subway tile is typically favored for indoor projects, but it can also transition beautifully to outdoor environments with the right selection. Typically, porcelain subway tiles are well-suited for outdoor use due to their durability and resistance to weather conditions. But remember, when considering subway tile for exterior applications, it's crucial to select tiles that are specifically marked for outdoor use. Additionally, adhering to the manufacturer's installation and maintenance recommendations is essential for ensuring the longevity and appearance of the tile in outdoor settings. This thoughtful approach allows you to extend the sleek, clean lines of subway tile to patios, outdoor kitchens, and more.

Where can I purchase subway tiles? 

Subway tile is conveniently available directly from our website at Edward Martin. We've streamlined the selection process to make it as smooth and user-friendly as possible. By simply browsing our extensive online catalog, you can explore a wide variety of subway tile styles and finishes. To enhance your shopping experience, we offer the option to request samples, allowing you to evaluate the texture and quality of the tiles in the comfort of your own home.

Furthermore, we are excited to offer cutting-edge Augmented Reality (AR) technology on our website. This feature enables you to visualize how different subway tiles will look in your specific space before making a purchase. We encourage you to take advantage of this innovative tool to ensure the tiles you choose perfectly match your design vision. Visit our AR Visualization page to see your chosen tiles in your own space today.

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Elegant white marble tile backdrop in a bright kitchen, featuring a rustic fruit bowl and fresh greenery next to modern cookbooks.