Epithelial cells are organized into either a single layer (simple epithelia) or multiple layers (stratified epithelia). Maintenance of these cellular organizations requires distinct adhesive mechanisms involving many cell surface molecules. One such molecule is a cell surface proteoglycan, named syndecan, that contains both heparan sulfate and chondroitin sulfate chains. This proteoglycan binds cells to fibrillar collagens and fibronectin and thus acts as a receptor for interstitial matrix. The proteoglycan is restricted to the basolateral surface of simple epithelial cells, but is located over the entire surface of stratified epithelial cells, even those surfaces not contacting matrix. We now show that the distinct localization in simple and stratified epithelia correlates with a distinct proteoglycan structure. The proteoglycan from simple epithelia (modal molecular size, 160 kDa) is larger than that from stratified epithelia (modal molecular size, 92 kDa), but their core proteins are identical in size and immunoreactivity. The proteoglycan from simple epithelia has more and larger heparan sulfate and chondroitin sulfate chains than the proteoglycan from stratified epithelia. Thus, the cell surface proteoglycan shows a tissue-specific structural polymorphism due to distinct posttranslational modifications. This polymorphism likely reflects distinct proteoglycan functions in simple and stratified epithelia, potentially meeting the different adhesive requirements of the cells in these different organizations.