Historic Paint Colors Find a New Market

Richard Friswell
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'Through the glass, brightly', view of the Lyman Estate, Waltham, Massachusetts

As I pulled up the long drive, lined with sturdy, shag-barked Maple trees, the snow-covered fields and a distant copse of fledgling oaks and birches to my right offered a glimpse of a Boston of long ago. Suburban neighborhoods and office parks now surround this pastoral vista, a gently rolling reminder of what much of this region (and in fact, most of 18th century America) looked like when the Lyman Estate property (“The Vale”) was acquired in 17…

My destination was the non-profit organization, Historic New England, based at the Lyman Estate in Waltham, MA. From there, a small and dedicated staff manages and preserves 36 historic properties in five New England states. Constructed over the course of four centuries (1664-1938), each serves as a small, freestanding museum and cultural milestone along the road of American architecture,

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The "Vale" or Lyman Estate, home of the Waltham, MA based Historic New England which manages 36 properties in 5 state

design and everyday living. In addition to their properties, the Otis House Museum, in Boston, houses their collection of over one-million records: historic photographs, architectural drawings, ephemera, manuscripts and other printed material pertaining to life in the region.

It was because of their historical archives and related research that I traveled to meet with Sally Zimmerman, Preservation Specialist, and an authority on historic paint colors throughout the period. Sally has devoted much of her professional life to investigating the composition, uses and fashion trends expressed by both exterior and interior paint in historic New England homes over the years. My goal was to discover how paint colors and technology has changed over the centuries and to learn more about the investigative techniques that are used to uncover this little-understood aspect of our cultural heritage.

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Oldest of the properties, the rare 1693 Arnold House, in Lincoln, RI, has a massive south-facing stone facade that stores summer sun's heat and winter fire's warmth

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The Walter Gropius Home, in Lincoln, MA, built by this Harvard Architecture faculty member and mid-century modernist in 1938

The American paint story, as it turns out, is a unique one and is affected in no small way by our founding history and the architectural trends that followed in its wake. “With so many properties under management by Historic New England, we have a unique opportunity to be able to catalogue paint and color use over more than a 300 year period,” explains Sally. “From early colonial salt box to a mid-20th century masterpiece by Walter Gropius, the range of architectural styles and the artifacts associated with them becomes vital source material for the research team.”

Traveling through history, with colonial architectural as the starting point, we let the tastes and culture of each period that followed serve as our guide. I learn that the composition of paint has changed little for several hundred years and, until recently, the choices available to our forefathers (and mothers) was limited, indeed. The restricted inventory of colors was, in large measure, due to man’s reliance on nature-based coloring agents and a limited range of chemicals to serve as the source for colors used in fine art and to a much more limited degree, in construction.

From the beginning of recorded history, pigmented materials have been used to record the experiences, beliefs and vanities of various cultures and civilizations. The earliest pigments used to tell a story in color were the cave paintings

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Detail of the pre-historic cave paintings of Lascaux, France

of Lascaux, France, where earth-toned pigments of ochre, iron oxide (rust) and lamp black were ground and mixed with milk and lime. These were then used to create representations of wild creatures and the Neolithic human form. Soft rocks and soot from torches were literally the first colors employed by humankind to tell a sacred story of the hunt. Their representations of this event on cave walls throughout Europe 35,000 years ago was intended to both document and sanctify their close bond to and dependence on these creatures.

Over the centuries, water or milk-based paints remained in common use. A range of colors could be produced, using by-products such as copper oxide to make shades of green or brown; a rare mineral from Afghanistan, lapus lazuli, to create a brilliant blue; Egyptians were able to fashion shades of red, yellow and orange from pigments in the soil; purple was created from the crushed shells of millions of mollusks. Plato discovered that by blending two different colors together, a different one would result. This increased the range of colors available to the ancients. Some attempts were made to improve permanence in color with the addition of olive oil, egg, animal glue (these applications were called, distemper) and waxes; but most, especially those exposed to the elements remained impermanent, or furtive.


Enthroned in his crimson and ermine robes, Napoleon Bonaparte, a painting by

It was not until the Age of Discovery and the Renaissance that paint technology improved and new colors became available from foreign sources. Attributed to the Dutch painter, Jan van Eyck, in 1410, the addition of boiled linseed oil to paint made for ease of application and a mixture that dried to a hard, permanent surface.

New colors were soon introduced to the artist’s palette. From the Silk Route trade to the East came indigo, derived from plants and the shell of the Phoenician snail. The ships of Spain that plied the trade routes between the New World and Europe frequently carried in their hold millions of insect carcasses, known as the female cochineal beetle. Found only on the Prickly Pear cactus, the crushed remnants of this small insect was well-known to the Aztecs and produced a brilliant red dye, known to the Europeans as crimson. Expensive and rare, it was sought after by royalty for their best finery and soon distinguished them from the less privileged masses. A less glamorous New World import, but one that proved just as useful, was Indian yellow; made from concentrated cow’s urine mixed with mud to be transported to London for refinement. It is clear why royals ‘aspired to the crimson’ and not to the yellow!

Because the formulation of blue pigment had always been difficult and expensive, the 1704 development in Germany of Prussian Blue gave a boost to the world of art and industry alike. Known for its permanence and versatility, it quickly found its way onto the artist’s brush, the burgeoning ceramics industry which sought to recreate, en mass, the newly-discovered Oriental themes and landscapes on plates and other serving pieces and in the drafting field, where it became the accepted color for ‘blueprints’ and other architectural renderings.


This 19th century Japanese print by Utamaro pictures courtesans in their elegant, but deadly white-face makeup

The cruelest color, white, was one that did not emerge on the scene until well into the classical period, when Greek and Roman civilizations flourished. Lead oxide is superior to chalk, zinc and barium for pigmenting various oils to make inks, paints and most ominously, women’s makeup. Widely used in locations throughout the world over the centuries, the powdery dust of lead production, the handling of it in the formulation of products and even its seductive sweet taste, lead would prove fatal to thousands of factory workers, artists, craftsmen and femme fatales (including Geishas, who covered their faces with lead-based cream to stand out in contrast to their darkly-stained teeth). Lead-white paint remained in common use until well into the 20th century and the health effects of lead paint ingestion are still being seen today.

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Victorian color choices were influenced by technology advances and color fashion of the time

“So, looking back,” –Sarah raises both hands to suggest an imaginary timeline between her palms– for much of the 17th and 18th centuries in the American colonies and early years of our nationhood, the exterior color choices and color ranges were limited to those that could withstand the elements and protect the wood-clad structures that were being built. Browns, red oxide, zinc white and black predominated. Some light blues and greens can be found, but they were rare. Interior colors were more striking and, mixed with wall papers, could make for a colorful habitat. Wall paper fragments offer us excellent clues as to how colors were used in combination,” she explains, “and some would be considered very bold by today’s standards.”

I asked Sarah to help me understand the sudden explosion of color that came into use during the Victorian period of the 19th century. She explained that this period, “coincided with the introduction of aniline or synthetic dyes.

• The first was mauveine, or mauve, discovered by Henry Perkins in 1856 and hundreds of others were to follow. The impact of artificial colors on the paint and fashion industry was dramatic; [author’s note: dark colors predominated in Victorian fashion and interior design to mask the soot produced by the newly-invented, coal-powered central heating system]

• Cromolithography, or color printing was developed at this time, spurring public interest in new colors;

• Paint tubes and re-sealable paint cans were invented (and the old-fashioned methods of mixing in small batches and storing paint in pig’s bladders was abandoned);

• Manufacturing methods allowed for uniformity and increased durability in paint coloration;

• The railroad allowed for wider distribution of the product to a broader market. After 1860, paint was no longer an artisanal product,” she tells me.

• “Paint packaging spawned a new generation of amateur painters who took up the hobby with enthusiasm;

• Steam-driven mills could turn out uniformly-sized construction material, including the new 2”x4”, in standard lengths, to hasten home construction. Harder woods could also be milled, promoting the development of stains to bring out wood grain.” [note: a boon to the Arts and Crafts movement of the 1890s and later, to Frank Lloyd Wright]

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Interior of the Lyman House shows uses of strong color in decor to offset classical appointments

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Sarah Zimmerman, Preservation Specialist for Historic New England and an authority on historic paint color

Sarah explains that, “Paint in the 20th century has undergone a range of chemical and technological improvements. Architectural colors, both inside and out, have a longer trend line, i.e.- they last longer. By carefully researching the range of paint colors from the past, we are educating people about the creative possibilities and encouraging them to go back and revisit their color choices on many of the historic properties that can be found in contemporary neighborhoods. When a house is correctly painted, it will speak to its heritage in a much clearer way. The right paint color captures the historic significance of the property and puts it in perspective for people.”

“There is a lot of information out there,” Sarah says, “through the California Paint Company, who committed to work with us to put this line of historic colors together and through the Color Marketing Association, who regularly forecast color trends in the design and construction trades. Painting has been made easy and low-risk. It’s a dramatic and fun-filled project that will enhance your life and doesn’t represent a huge commitment. The best part is that we are here to help. Just call us”

Color me convinced.


Historic New England is a non-profit organization. Once known as The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, it is the oldest, largest and most comprehensive preservation organization in the country. Visit the web site (and their sites!) at www.historicnewengland.org.

Owners and others interested in historic preservation should contact the Stewardship Program, a partnership with property owners at (781) 891-4882, ext 227 to arrange for an on-site meeting to discuss preservation strategies, or go to www.historichomeowner.org

To purchase the historic colors chart ($6.50), go to www.historicnewengland.org, go to ‘museum shop’, then ‘book store and click on ‘Reference/How-To Books’.

To learn more about how English historic colors differ from American, go to www.farrow-ball.com to see their paint and wall paper collection.

One Comment

  1. SonyaSunny October 8, 2009 6:29 am

    http://www.richardfriswell.com – da best. Keep it going!


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