Going Underground: A Brief History of the Subway Tile

Subway tiles are easily one of the best-selling tiles of the last ten or so years and certainly one of the most popular ranges we carry here at Tile Mountain. Their classic good looks, vast array of colours and styles available, and the many ways they can be installed have all contributed to their popularity. Combine these with a low price point and there’s little wonder why they’re used so much both in residential and commercial properties.

But you may be wondering why there’s been such a resurgence in these tiles which have been around since the turn of the last century? Today we’re chatting about these humble tiles and where they got their start to become one of the most popular styles in history.

Around the turn of the 20th century, architects of the world created unique subterranean worlds as a new leap forward in city travel. The walls of this new underground train travel phenomenon were covered in something that was different to the standard square tile. Designers George C. Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge created the distinctive 3″ x 6″ rectangles as well as some of the mosaics that stand today in the very first New York subway station 1904 and this style was repeated the world over – from London’s Tube to the Metro in Paris to underground trains around the world.

London Underground circa 1900

Queens Road (now Queensway), London tube station circa 1900

It was our first glimpse of the subway tile (aka the ‘Metro’ tile) – an easy to care for, easy to clean ceramic tile shaped like bricks. In those times, the Victorians were obsessed with hygiene and these sparkling white tiles didn’t stain and were easy to clean. The light also bounced off of them easily and gave the appearance of a safe sanitary space.

The glossy white tiles were rectangular which allowed them to gently curve around the large expanses and wide arches of the underground stations. Designers used these tiles in conjunction with coloured mosaic tiles to create an impressive backdrop to this marvel of engineering.

The world took notice, evolved the flat brick shape to include a slight bevelled edge and soon these metro tiles were being used, not just in underground stations but also everywhere a ‘sanitary’ appearance was required from kitchens and bathrooms, to butchers and hospitals. The clean white subway tile was adopted across the globe in various areas of the home to reflect a clean, sanitary space.

Today any area of the home that’s particularly hard-working can benefit from subway tiles – from kitchens and bathrooms to utility rooms, mud rooms and conservatories. They can even be used as fire-surrounds due to their heat-resistance, as a colourful alternative to stone or brick. They give an old-world charm to an older property but look just at home in a more contemporary home too.

Simple, clean, easy to maintain and adaptable for nearly any style, they have stood the test of time and are now just as popular as ever.

Check out our full range of subway tiles here.

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As a multi-award winning interior design content creator, Kimberly Duran is an Interior Design-obsessed American ex-pat, who chronicles her decorating journey and dispenses interior design advice in her personal blog, Swoon Worthy. When she’s not helplessly drooling over all the latest trends in design, she’s adding things to the imaginary ‘shopping basket’ in her head, she likes to get messy tackling DIY projects with her partner in crime, Wayne, stalking eBay for vintage bargains and filling her home with her favourite neutral – gold.