Here’s a little free-association game: What’s the first word that pops into your head when you think of an embossed metal ceiling? “Tin,” right? For me, it’s “beer.”

That’s because I’ve spent many an evening staring up over my suds at the magnificent metal ceiling at the Old Town Bar. Built in 1892 and still retaining much of its original detail, with etched-glass windows, massive brass chandeliers, and carved wooden wall paneling, the tavern is a relic of the fine craftsmanship that characterized low-rise New York City during this country’s late-Victorian era. The ceiling at Old Town and the ones that adorned so many homes around the turn of the 20th century were made of a combination of iron and zinc, or steel. The popular term “tin ceiling” is a misnomer that many historians attribute to Americans’ belief at the time that mass-produced metal wares were cheap and flimsy, like tin. In truth, the ceilings were quite durable.

As an affordable alternative to the pricey ornamental plaster used for centuries by wealthy Europeans, U.S. manufacturers in the 1880s began stamping garland, quatrefoil, and geometric motifs into sheet metal. Cut and shaped into tiles, cove moldings, and medallions, the pieces fit together in interlocking grids that could be nailed directly to furring strips secured to joists. The easy-to-install ceilings were popular among the fashion-conscious middle class because once painted white, the metal was almost indistinguishable from its more expensive counterpart.

As metal manufacturing moved into munitions at the onset of World War II, the availability of embossed ceiling tiles and trim declined. Today, just a handful of companies stamp out new panels based on the old designs, but period originals are still plentiful at most salvage yards. Just keep in mind that you’ll likely find only enough matching pieces to sheath the ceiling in your powder room, not in your kitchen. Antique panels also work well as backsplashes, fireplace surrounds, and as scuff-proof sheathing for the area beneath your breakfast bar counter. I even wrapped the sides of a plain wooden planter with salvaged tiles (see how at right). Had I played the free-association game sooner, though, I would have covered a mirror frame instead. Emblazoned with a Guinness logo, it would have been great as part of a back bar.
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