The fictional town of Amaryllis, Arkansas, setting for the Penelope Pembroke Cozy Mystery Series, had its beginning in the post-Civil War era. Among the places showcased in the books, buildings like the old feed store and possibly the first school—at least its additions—featured pressed tin ceilings similar to those you can see when visiting restored historic buildings in any real town. (See images here.)
Though these decorative ceilings peaked in popularity at the turn of the twentieth century, they graced many commercial buildings and homes constructed between 1880 and 1930. Today, they’re being replicated by many companies, and original ceilings, covered by dropped acoustic ceilings and drywall are being uncovered and restored.
So why were these metal ceilings used? First of all, they were readily available. The ornate plaster used by wealthy Europeans had the disadvantages of being expensive and time-consuming to mold, difficult to ship, and a real pain to install. So North Americans (with a few Australians and South Africans thrown in) turned to pressed tin.
Tin was a generic name for sheet metal, so the ‘pressed tin’ ceilings were actually tin coated with steel (think tin cans). Also these decorative squares were durable, lightweight, fireproof, soundproofing, moisture and mildew resistant, and pretty easy to install. (They still are!)
These sheets of metal were pressed one at a time with a variety of designs and often painted white to look as if they were hand carved or like molded plaster. You can see a picture of a press here.
In a sense, the ceilings were like artwork which had heretofore hung on the walls of a room. Check out images of pressed tin ceilings both old and new here.
Of course, styles change, and desirable home décor changed around the 1930s. Now new owners of historic buildings and homes are busy restoring the original architectural vision of their edifices. One roadblock is getting rid of the lead-based paint commonly used in earlier eras. Damaged squares must be removed and repaired or replaced. Many companies manufacture these ‘old’ ceilings.
Growing up in a town which sprang up around a West Texas military fort, these pressed tin ceilings were commonplace. Now I have a new appreciation of them and, whenever I visit an older building, I automatically look up. Sometimes I’m gratified by a glimpse of the real thing.