It's no secret that we love the New York City Subway. The history, trains, and stations have long been an inspiration to architects and designers around the world, and its classic subway tile has been a blueprint for our very own Subway Ceramics collection. With over 1 billion people riding the system each year, it has become the heart of New York City and a major influence on American design.

New York Subway Station, circa 1905
New York Subway Station, circa 1905

The Early Days:

In the late 1860s, the first elevated rail system in New York was built in Manhattan and became the city's main method of public transportation. As elevated trains rose in popularity, an architect named Alfred E. Beach wanted to demonstrate that underground trains could also be a viable mode of transportation. In 1870 Beach created a 312-foot tunnel under lower Broadway with a single-cab train that went back and forth between Warren Street and Murray Street. The train was operated by "pneumatic pressure" which was powered by a giant fan.The "Beach Pneumatic Transit" was a success, and sold over 400,000 rides in its single year of operation, but due to politics and funding the system was shut down and the stations were closed.

Beach Pneumatic Transit
Left: Illustration of Beach Pneumatic Transit | Right: Plans for Beach Pneumatic Transit.

It is commonly agreed that the first underground line of what we now know as the New York City Subway opened in Manhattan in 1904. It was operated by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), and by 1915 the IRT had expanded to the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. With the growth of the underground subway, elevated train lines began to disappear. In 1940 the IRT was acquired by the city and was merged with other train lines to eventually become the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

Station Design:

With the development and expansion of the subway system, there became a need to build underground stations that were functional and had a consistent style. George C. Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge were responsible for designing the finishes for the early subway stations, and they chose tile for the walls because it was easy-to-clean and durable.

Heins and La Farge are credited with creating the classic 3" x 6" subway tile. The Victorian sensibility of hygiene was very important, so the original subway tile was white, making the underground spaces bright and giving the perception of cleanliness. The duo also designed tiles with station names and directions printed on them. Ornate bas-relief tiles were also used to decorate the stations. Often these had images of animals and were used by the city's non-English speakers to identify stations.

Inspired by Heins and La Farge, another designer, Squire Vickers, introduced wall mosaics to tell riders which stations they were in. Vickers preserved the fonts that Heins and LaFarge used, but his tilework on the borders of the tablets was more simplified. Vickers also decorated the stations with pictorial mosaics that emphasized buildings and city landmarks, rather than animals.

New York Subway mosaic
Mosaic signs like this one are commonly found in New York City Subway stations.

The design aesthetic of “subway tile” quickly became fashionable in pre-war bathrooms and kitchens around the country. Easy to clean, stain-resistant and light-reflective, the tile epitomized what those rooms should be: sanitary. Mosaics also gained popularity around the country, and were used in public venues and private homes to add decorative touches to floors.

1920s kitchen with subway tile
As the popularity of subway tile grew, magazines began to run ads that featured the style. This image is from an ad from the Armstrong Cork Company, circa 1920s. (Antique Homestyle)

The Modern Day:

Today, more than a century later, the mosaics of the New York City Subway are considered to be works of art in their own right. The MTA has embraced this and is proud that its stations have become hubs for public art. Each year the MTA now commissions artists for unique installments, and it also has open areas for musicians, entertainers, and poets to perform. Several books have also been published about subway station art.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) hasn't forgotten its roots and is now embarking on an upgrade to several of the original Subway stations in Brooklyn, including the restoration of the original subway tile.

Subway Tile trivet
To celebrate Heritage Tile's 10th anniversary, we created trivets with an image of the 1945 New York City Subway map.

In recent years subway tile has become more popular than ever, particularly for residential bathrooms and kitchens, and also for commercial spaces. We're so proud to be part of this historic design style and the uniquely American heritage that it has.

Interested in subway tile or mosaic tile?

Our Subway Ceramics and Subway Mosaics collections will help you replicate the New York City Subway style. Contact us today to learn more about these collections and how we can help with your next tile installation!