Popcorn ceilings are usually the first thing to go on reno shows these days, but it wasn’t too long ago that they were widely popular. If you’ve ever wondered why this design feature was ever chosen in the first place, you’re not alone. Read on to learn more about the history of popcorn ceilings, according to those in the industry who know about its complicated past.
“It was an inexpensive and easy way to hide imperfections and still give the illusion of a dazzling white finish,” explains Tina MartinDelCampo, founder of Tina Martin Interiors.
This ceiling trend began in the 1950s and continued until the ‘80s. “They could be found in many new low- to mid-cost housing developments and multi-story residential buildings,” elaborates Decorist designer Maria DeLucia. “The age and style of homes varied greatly because it was used in both new construction and renovations of older styles.”
Popcorn ceilings were popular because of the helpful functions that they provided. For starters, applying this finish was quicker than making ceilings smooth, which have to be drywalled, primed, and painted. The texture of popcorn ceilings simply covers any minor to moderate irregularities and eliminates the need to apply, feather, and sand multiple layers or fill in holes, says Jordan Fulmer, founder of Momentum Property Solutions, a home renovation company.
Its quick and affordable application was especially useful in the ‘50s, which marked the start of a construction explosion. The decade saw a sharp increase in the number of houses being built to accommodate the growing economy and burgeoning suburbs following World War II. Popcorn ceilings could keep up with this need for speed, saving builders time and energy.
Along with being inexpensive and hiding imperfections, popcorn ceilings also had sound-dampening qualities. “They can reduce echoes in a room just like carpet or acoustic wall panels,” says Fulmer. In places where one might have loud neighbors — like apartment buildings and schools — popcorn ceilings became increasingly common.
A key material in mid-century popcorn ceilings was the impetus of their downfall. Popcorn treatment originally contained asbestos, which was discovered to be harmful to human health. “Asbestos is a natural fiber mineral that can be released into the air and cause serious health issues, like cancer, if inhaled or ingested,” MartinDelCampo explains.
But popcorn ceilings containing asbestos typically aren’t harmful unless disturbed. When damaged, crumbled, or removed, they can be unsafe. When the use of asbestos was banned in all U.S. homes as part of the Clean Air Act in the late 1970s, manufacturers switched to tiny particles of vermiculite or polystyrene instead of asbestos, DeLucia says. Still, the association these ceilings had with asbestos ultimately caused them to garner a negative reputation. They steadily declined in popularity after the ‘80s, and popcorn ceilings haven’t made a comeback since.
Today, popcorn ceilings are rarely, if ever, chosen in a new build. “It’s viewed as outdated and can even lower the value of your home,” says Katherine Meyers, Design Manager at Guest House, a home staging company. They aren’t just passé — the design trend is actively disliked by many. “Almost all of my clients react negatively to a popcorn ceiling,” says MartinDelCampo. “It’s one of the very first things they have safely removed from the house.” (All of the designers I spoke to for this article agree, though there are still some supporters!)
While popcorn ceilings might be lacking love now, though, they certainly had their moment in design history and solved problems in their heyday. In recent years, a new technique has filled the same niche. “Many newly-built homes have utilized ‘knockdown texture’ instead of popcorn,” Fulmer explains. “This texture is a little more subtle, while still giving builders the benefits of masking drywall imperfections.” (Popcorn ceilings have a more brazen cottage cheese texture, which is why they are also known as “cottage cheese ceilings,” because the original mixture looked like the dairy food when sprayed on.)
As for what to do if you have popcorn ceilings? Removing them yourself is extremely messy and labor-intensive — and possibly dangerous. Otherwise, you can hire someone to do so professionally. “Expect to spend at least $1 to $2 per square foot,” Meyers says.
Or you might just let them stick around. With design trends always coming and going, you could just be one of the first to bring the infamous popcorn ceiling back.