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.”
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:
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.