Revisited Myth #24: Ceiling medallions were placed above chandeliers to keep the soot from showing.

A reader wrote: “While on vacation my husband and I visited a circa 1880s stick style home. The docent pointed to the ceiling medallions and said they were there to keep the soot from candliers or gasoliers from showing. Ever heard that one? I would have let it go except someone staying in the B&B we were at said the same thing.”

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Ceiling medallions were popular decorative elements in 19th-century middle and upper class homes. According to G. C. Winkler and R. W. Moss in Victorian Interior Decoration 1830-1900, they could be made of wood, plaster, plaster of Paris, or paper mâché, with paper mâché the most common. Styles were usually based on a single flower, a circle of acanthus leaves, or a molded, plain disk like this one: 

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They were popular during the 1830s through the 1890s. According to period advertisements, the ceiling medallions that were meant for the center of the ceiling above hanging light fixtures were sometimes called “centers.”

I found nothing to indicate that centers were placed there to shield the ceiling from soot. It’s illogical. After all, if the candles or gas fixtures are giving off excessive soot, the medallions would get just as dirty as the ceiling and be even harder to clean or paint over than bare ceiling would be, so they don’t shield anything. I did read in contemporary literature that you could clean these centers with bread, which takes off the dirt but not the finish, a trick I first heard in Italy when the owner of an old castle we were renting, Montalto (you’ve got to see this place: www.montalto.it), told us the only thing that would clean her smoke-damaged frescoes was white Tuscan bread, crusts removed.

One unidentified reader of this blog made a sensible comment, “Pretty sure ceiling medallions of old were used for the same reason they are today: when you hand something heavy from the ceiling you have to cut an obnoxious hole in the ceiling and hang it from a joist. A ceiling medallion is much nicer to look at. That’s the sole reason they exist today, and I’m guessing, but the function probably is no different today than back then.” 

Oh–the B&B folks probably repeated what they had heard at the local historic house . . . which is exactly how these myths keep spreading.

7 Responses to Revisited Myth #24: Ceiling medallions were placed above chandeliers to keep the soot from showing.

  1. I have a ceiling rose in my home. It contains air vents which, in the days of gas lighting, allowed any build up of gas to escape from the room.
    Liz

  2. So useful article! I am going to buy a beautiful white chandelier and I wasn’t sure how to put it on the ceiling. Thanks a lot for sharing this article! Berrylands Carpet Cleaners Ltd.

  3. This is very interesting, especially since these could have been used for that reason back then. I still see these designs in homes today, my parents actually have a house with this above their chandelier. They can really look good though, maybe I’ll get one installed in my home. http://www.classicceilings.com.au/ceilings

  4. Ceiling medallions would be a lot of work to clean since many are several inches deep. The ceiling ornaments in Kensington plantation house hang down a foot or more. Imagine moving all the furniture just to clean a medallion.

    They are actually much older than the Nineteenth Century.; They were used in late Medieval and early Renaissance buildings as ceiling ornaments, although the chandeliers hanging there might well be later additions as the centers, or bosses, were often in the middle of the room, convenient for an hanging light.

    The Adam brothers used them, usually without lamps, in their ceilings – refer to 1760’s-1770’s Kenwood House – near London – or the 1722 Castletown House in County Kildare, Ireland, with its 1770’s Adam style ‘Pompeii-inspired’ long gallery ceiling where the Venetian chandeliers actually hang from medallions. .

    I have found a number of Victorian-era calcimine painted medallions, perhaps to make repainting them easier when lamp, oil burner or gaslight soot built up. Many oil-burning lamps originally came with ;smoke bells,’ a bell-shaped cup hung above the flame to catch the soot. A house I restored in Denver had a soot line on the walls and woodwork, where they became darker in just a few inches. But the painted ceiling medallion was easy to clean.

    In Victorian auditoriums, the ceiling medallions often included a vented grill to carry off soot and heat from the huge chandeliers needed to light them.

    At the Mt. Lebanon Shaker communities, there were individual soot pipes for oil lamps, just like stove pipes, and they plugged into the stove chimneys next to the stove pipes.

    Hope that adds to the confusion.
    Greg Hubbard

  5. Andrew says:

    I can imagine this myth being partially true though, if the medallion was a dark color, the soot would be hidden, or perhaps it could contain hidden ventilation, but still Occam’s Razor, the medallion covers the hole made to hang the heavy iron from the main building’s supports and joists.

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