PolitiFact Virginia: Kaine's Capitol Tobacco Claim Goes Up In Smoke
Speaker: Tim Kaine
Statement: The ceilings of the Virginia Senate and House chambers are “circled by gold-embossed tobacco leaves.”
Date: May 20
Setting: Floor speech
U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mitch McConnell have introduced a bill that would raise the age for buying tobacco products from 18 to 21.
The senators say they’re bothered by a surge in tobacco use by young people, brought on by e-cigarettes. The senators represent two of the largest tobacco-growing states: McConnell, the Republican majority leader, is from Kentucky; Kaine is a Virginia Democrat.
Kaine acknowledged tobacco’s huge historic role in Virginia while introducing the bill in a May 20 floor speech. “Tobacco has had such a place in our history that in the ceiling of both legislative chambers in the Virginia Capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson, the ceiling is circled by gold-embossed tobacco leaves,” he said.
In Virginia, it’s lore that the ceilings in legislative chambers are adorned with tobacco frescoes. But is it true? We fact-checked the claim, spread by Kaine and many others, and it went up in smoke.
Two experts told us there are no depictions of tobacco on the ceiling - or anywhere - in the chambers.
“I can’t think of anything that would be plausible in the House and Senate chambers,” said Mark Greenough, the capitol’s historian since 2002.
Although there’s a forest’s worth of leaves in the chambers, “they’re not tobacco,” said Susan Schaar, clerk of the state Senate since 1990.
Let’s take a tour:
Spanning the widths of the ceilings are embossed rows of sheafed leaves and berries. To the untrained eye, they may pass as tobacco. But Schaar, who grew up on a tobacco farm, knows better.
“Tobacco doesn’t have berries,” she said.
A large, oval skylight, centers the ceiling of each chamber, tightly framed in a rectangular panel. In the deep corners of the panel, looking almost like a six-point star, are the superimposed letters VA, painted blue and gold surrounded by embossed leaves. But again, the leaves have berries.
What are these fronds with berries?
“The laurel produces small round fruit or berries and that would resemble what we see here,” Greenough said.
At least half of the leaves in the chambers don’t have berries. They’re painted on canvases in recesses where the walls and ceilings meet. They’re frescoed on the borders of ceiling panels. All are painted gold. Closer to the ground, berry-less leaves are embossed on the plasterwork surrounding doors and windows and on pillar-like structures that jut from walls.
Schaar and Greenough say these are acanthus - a leaf that has adorned classic Greek and Roman architecture since ancient times. Thomas Jefferson relied on that style when he designed the state capitol in the 1780s.
Jefferson, however, did not design the house and senate chambers that wing the original capitol building. They were built in the very early 1900s. Greenough said the architect took pains to design the chambers in the exact Greek-Roman style of the Ionic order that Jefferson used.
The chambers opened in 1906, but there wasn’t time to decorate them before the General Assembly session began. So everything, including the frescos, was painted bright white.
That’s how they looked until 1908 when Virginia’s first lady - Elizabeth Swanson - was put in charge of the decoration. Early this century, the chambers were meticulously restored to Swanson’s design.
Kaine, in his speech, twice described the ceiling leaves as gold-embossed. But this needs elaboration. Greenough said there’s no gold-gild on the ceiling. What was used originally and during the restoration was much cheaper Dutch metal paint.
The bottom line: “It’s not gold-gild paint, and it’s not tobacco,” Greenough said.
But those determined to find tobacco in the capital may be able to declare a small victory. You have to leave the chambers and go to the rotunda, designed by Jefferson. Looking up to the corners of the third-floor ceiling, you can see long leaves painted rusty brown.
“There's nary a berry to be found,” Greenough said, pointing to the leaves. “So, you know, at least it creates an opening for those who really want to find tobacco leaves in the rotunda. I'm not going to swear to it.”
We sent an email with our findings to Kaine’s press secretary - Katie Stuntz. “We learn something new every day!” she wrote back. “Thank you to the capitol historian and senate clerk for setting the record straight.”
Kaine said the ceilings of the Virginia Senate and House chambers are “circled by gold-embossed tobacco leaves.”
Experts say there’s not a fleck tobacco on the ornate ceilings and walls of the chambers. What you see is laurel - remember, tobacco doesn’t have berries - and acanthus, leaves used since ancient times to adorn Greek-Roman architecture like the capital. And there’s no gild in the gold, just Dutch metal paint.
Kaine was repeating a myth, which by definition must be false. And that’s how we rate Kaine’s statement: False.
Sen. Tim Kaine, floor speech, May 20, 2019 (1:20 mark).
Interviews with Mark Greenough, Virginia capitol historian, May 23-24.
Interview with Susan Schaar, clerk of the Senate of Virginia, May 23.
Email from Katie Stuntz, Kaine’s press secretary, May 29, 2019.