It might just be the hardest-working wall covering in America. From the moment that ceramic subway tiles made their debut in New York City's subterranean train stations in the early 1900s, they captured the public's imagination and quickly moved into the bathrooms and kitchens of prewar houses for both practical and aesthetic reasons. Easy to clean, stain resistant, and light reflective, the 3-by-6-inch glazed white rectangles epitomized what those rooms could and should be: sanitary.
More than a century later, ceramic subway tile has endured as a perennial favorite for generations of homeowners. Purists seeking an authentic, original look might insist on using a traditional hue of warm bisque with a finish that's glossy and crackled (or "crazed," as it's sometimes called), but if that's not your cup of tea, never fear. 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 and mudrooms, as well as spots like fireplace surrounds, where glazed tiles offer a colorful, decorative alternative to brick or stone, as well as excellent heat resistance.
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. Here, we'll stick with the old-school 3-by-6 format as we explore this material's charms and versatility.
Shown: Warm-white subway tile adds timeless appeal to a traditional kitchen.
Similar to shown: Cottage field tile in Devonshire Cream, $15 per square foot; waterworks.com