The development of surface polarity has been studied in the epithelial Madin-Darby canine kidney (MDCK) cell line by examining two basolateral markers: a monoclonal antibody against a 58-kd protein and [35S]methionine uptake. The surface distribution of these markers was followed after plating the cells on coverslips or nitrocellulose filters. In subconfluent monolayers the apical surface of many cells was stained with the anti-58-kd antibody. Clearing of the apical surface occurred first after confluency had been reached in cells grown on coverslips. Similarly, in cells grown on filters the basolateral 58-kd protein disappeared from the apical surface concomitantly with the development of a measurable electrical resistance over the cell monolayer. The uptake of [35S]methionine was measured from both sides of filter-grown cells and began to polarize early after seeding, reaching a value of greater than 98% basolateral in the fully polarized monolayer. These results emphasize that the development of surface polarity in MDCK cells is a gradual process, and that extensive cell-cell contacts seem to be required for complete surface polarization.