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Why do Americans Have a Fascination with White Ceilings?

White is not a common color in nature unless you're looking at snow. Nature mostly gives us accents of white as surf, clouds or rock.
White is not a common color in nature unless you're looking at snow. Nature mostly gives us accents of white as surf, clouds or rock.

Painting your ceiling white is not necessary or even always a good idea. White paint will not always make your room look larger, cleaner and more fashionable. Sometimes white will seem to expand the size of a room, but sometimes it’s a big mistake. Mostly, people paint their ceilings white because they don’t know what else to do.

I’m not exactly sure when white ceilings became fashionable, though I suspect the country’s fascination with white paint began in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair. The famed White City at the World’s Fair included a complex of buildings and streets over an area of hundreds of acres. Buildings were finished with white stucco and brightly lit with the new-fangled street lights. Acres of radiant whiteness must have been an entrancing alternative to the dark countryside and dimly lit city streets filled with dark tenement buildings.

Then, about thirty-five years later, the Great Depression hit the country and nobody was painting. Whitewash, a type of paint coating made with calsomine (from slaked lime) was a very cheap alternative to colored paints. It could take days to dry and usually rubbed off easily before it flaked off after a long winter. Often used as an exterior paint coat, whitewash was a stop-gap paint until a durable (and more expensive) paint could be purchased.

After World War Two and the resulting Baby Boom, suburbs of homes sprung up on the outskirts of cities all over the country, especially in the West. Cheap and fast construction of ranch style homes (often referred to as tract homes) dominated the scene. White paint was an inexpensive choice for the developer or builder, requiring no color mixing or color changing during the assembly-line like painting process necessary to get an entire tract of homes painted inexpensively.

The 1970’s famous white plaster splatter ceiling (sometimes mixed with glitter) was ubiquitous in many Western tract homes of the era. I’m guessing that a significant population of Americans alive today grew up looking up at white ceilings.

Times have changed. Current paint and coatings technology has resulted in paint with amazing qualities our grandparents wouldn’t have dreamed possible. Some paints dry in a hour or so, can be easily scrubbed, are available in different sheens and they have little to no odor. And, there are literally thousands of colors to choose from.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when considering a ceiling paint color:

  • Use white or a light color on your ceiling when you have a lot of poisonous insects that you need to see. (No joke — in a tropical environment this could be an issue).
  • When the ceiling is a different color than the walls, the area where the  ceiling and walls meet (line of demarcation) becomes a focal point. Unless your ceiling is interesting either architecturally or because it’s accented with beautiful moldings or beams, consider painting it the same color or a different color that is in a similar color value as the wall paint color.
  • If the ceiling is low, paint the walls and ceiling the same color (a mid-value or lighter) so that there is no color change line (line of demarcation).
  • Use a paint sheen on the ceiling that has some reflective qualities so that it bounces light. An eggshell sheen is a favorite.
  • The only reason to use a flat or matte finish on the ceiling is to hide surface imperfections or to reduce reflected light.
  • If the ceiling is particularly beautiful or interesting and it works with the design of the room to emphasize the ceiling, vary the colors, color values and sheens on the ceiling to complement the wall colors.
  • Your local paint store professional can give you additional guidance after you’ve choosen your initial colors and explain your design ideas.



  1. Teresa M says:

    I have an old log house with very low beamed ceilings, about 7ft. What variation of color should I use on walls, ceiling and beams to highlight beams so people can see them and not hit their heads, but not make the beams a focal point??
    Thanks so much for any helpful suggestions.

    • Cristina says:

      Hi Teresa —
      How to highlight something without making it a focal point is impossible. My suggestion is to make a change that calls attention to the beams in a positive way. The good thing is that you have authentic logs, an interesting type of construction. One log home contractor I know sanded the walls and ceilings between the beams to lighten the wood naturally (removing smoke and old yellowed varnish). This caused the beams to show up and also lightened the entire interior. In areas where the beams are dangerous (in a doorway, for example) I suggest you hang something soft such as decorative fringe or even pad the beam if you have to. Pendleton woolen mills sell scraps of their famous Pendleton blankets that might make an appropriate padding as well as design statement. Sometimes you’ll see Pendleton fabric remnants on ebay.
      Best wishes with your project,

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