Ceiling medallions, those ornate plaster castings from which chandeliers seem to hang, are unique to vintage buildings. A recent Facebook post from a friend who is restoring his Victorian house about his gorgeously painted ceiling medallion ended with the question, “Do you know what the purpose of ceiling medallions were?” The general consensus, and the answer most commonly found on the Internet, is that they served to prevent the soot from candles and gas lamps from spreading out over the entire ceiling.
I had heard that story before and as I thought about it, realized that it seemed a bit off. After a bit of research, I think I can confidently say that there’s no evidence to support it. As described succinctly on the History Myths Debunked blog (which is a veritable cornucopia of such things), although widely distributed and often retold by historic house docents, this answer can be disproved by a little bit of research and moreover, if you think about it, makes no sense.