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Pre-1875 Paints




Production and Appearance

How were paints made prior to the widespread use of factory-made paint after 1875 [or earlier]? How did they look? The answers to these questions are provided more to underscore the differences between early paints and today's paints than for practical purposes.

Duplicating the composition and appearance of historic paints, including the unevenness of color, the irregularity of surface texture, the depth provided by a glaze top coat, and the directional lines of application, can be extremely challenging to a contemporary painter who is using modern materials.

The pigments used in early paints were coarsely and unevenly ground, and they were dispersed in the paint medium by hand; thus, there is a subtle unevenness of color across the surface of many pre-1875 paints. The dry pigments had to be ground in oil to form a paste and the paste had to be successively thinned with more oil and turpentine before the paint was ready for application. The thickness of the oil medium produced the shiny surface desired in the 18th century.

In combination with the cylindrical (or round) shaped brushes with wood handles and boar bristles, it also produced a paint film with a surface texture of brush strokes.

Geographical Variation

The early churches and missions built by the French in Canada and the Spanish in the southwestern United States often had painted decoration on whitewashed plaster walls, done with early waterbased paints.

By the mid-17th century oil paint was applied to wood trim in many New England houses, and whitewash was applied to walls.

These two types of paint, one capable of highly decorative effects such as imitating marble or expensive wood and the other cheap to make and relatively easy to apply, brightened and enhanced American interiors.

In cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and later, Washington, painters and stainers who were trained guildsmen from England practiced their craft and instructed apprentices. The painter's palette of colors included black and white and grays, buffs and tans, ochre yellows and iron oxide reds, and greens (from copper compounds) as well as Prussian blue. That such painting was valued and that a glossy appearance on wood was important are substantiated by evidence of clear and tinted glazes, which may be found by microscopic examination.

Brush Marks

Early paints did not dry out to a flat level surface. Leveling, in fact, was a property of paint that was much sought after later, but until well into the 19th century, oil paints and whitewashes showed the signs of brush marks. Application therefore was a matter of stroking the brush in the right direction for the best appearance. The rule of thumb was to draw the brush in its final stokes in the direction of the grain of the wood.

Raised field paneling, then, required that the painter first cover the surface with paint and afterward draw the brush carefully along the vertical areas from bottom to top and along the top and bottom bevels of the panel horizontally from one side to the other.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, for very fine finishes, several coats were applied with each coat being rubbed down with rotten stone or pumice after drying. A four to five coat application was typical; however nine coats were not uncommon at the end of the century for finishes in some of the grand mansions. Generally, they were given a final glaze finish. Though expensive, this type of finish would last for decades and give a rich, smooth appearance.


Color matching is complicated by the fact that all early paints were made by hand. Each batch of paint, made by painters using books of paint "recipes" or using their own experience and instincts, might well have slight variations in color — a little darker or lighter, a little bluer and so on.

The earliest known book of paint formulations by an American painter is the 1812 guide by Hezekiah Reynolds. It gives instructions for the relative quantities of tinting pigments to be added to a base, but even with proportions held constant, the amount of mixing, or dispersion, varied from workman to workman and resulted in color variations.

Knowing all of the facts about early paints can aid in microscopic paint study. For example, finding very finely and evenly ground pigments, equally dispersed throughout the ground or vehicle, is an immediate clue that the paint was not made by hand but, rather, in a factory.

By the first decades of the 19th century more synthetic pigments were available — chrome yellow, chrome green, and shades of red. Discoveries of light, bright, clear colors in the plaster and mosaic decoration of dwellings at Pompeii caught the fancy of many Americans and came together with the technology of paint to make for a new palette of choice, with more delicacy than many of the somewhat greyeddown colors of the 18th century. Of course, the blues which could be produced with Prussian blue in the 18th and 19th centuries were originally often strong in hue. That pigment — as were a number of others — is fugitive, that is, it faded fairly quickly and thus softened in appearance. It should be remembered that high style houses from the mid-17th to late 19th centuries often had wallpaper rather than paint on the walls of the important rooms and hallways.


Another paint innovation of the early 19th century was the use of flatter oil paints achieved by adding more turpentine to the oil, which thus both thinned and flatted them. By the 1830s the velvety look of flat paint was popular.

Wherever decorative plaster was present, as it frequently was during the height of the Federal period, distemper paints were the coating of choice. Being both thin and readily removable with hot water, they permitted the delicate plaster moldings and elaborate floral or botanical elements to be protected and tinted but not obscured by the buildup of many paint layers. (The use of water-based paints on ceilings continued through the Victorian years for the same reasons.)

Unfortunately, flat paints attract dirt, which is less likely to adhere to high gloss surfaces, and are thus harder to wash. Victorians tended to use high gloss clear (or tinted) finishes such as varnish or shellac on much of their wood trim and to use flat or oil paints on walls and ceilings.

Decorative Painting

In interiors, paint could be used creatively and imaginatively, most often to decorate rather than to protect. Decorative forms included stencilling, graining and marbleizing, and trompe l'oeil. Stencilling. Stencilled designs on walls were often used in the first half of the 19th century in place of wallpaper. Old Sturbridge Village, in Massachusetts, has paintings showing the interiors of a (c. 1815-1820) farmhouse which has both stencilled walls--imitating wallpaper--and painted floors or oiled and painted floor cloths, imitating fine carpets. By 1850 and for the next 60 years thereafter, stencilled and freehandpainted decoration for walls and ceilings became a high as well as a humble art. Owen Jones' Grammar of Ornament, published in 1859, provided the source for painted decoration from Portland to Peoria, Savannah to San Francisco.

Graining and Marbleizing

If floors, walls, and ceilings were decorated by paint in a variety of styles, the wood and stone trim of rooms was not omitted. The use of faux bois, that is, painting a plain or common wood such as pine to look like mahogany or some finer wood, or faux marbre, painting a wood or plaster surface to look like marble — realistically or fantastically — was common in larger homes of the 18th century. By the early 19th century, both stylized graining and marbleizing adorned the simple rural or small town houses as well. Often baseboards and stair risers were marbleized as were fireplace surrounds. Plain slate was painted to look like fine Italian marble. In many simple buildings, and, later, in the Victorian period, many prominent buildings such as town halls and churches, the wood trim was given a realistic graining to resemble quarter sawn oak, walnut, or a host of other exotic woods.

Trompe L'oeil

Churches, courthouses, and state capitols frequently received yet another remarkable use of paint: trompe l'oeil decoration. Applied by skilled artists and artisans, painted designs — most often using distemper paints or oils — could replicate threedimensional architectural detailing such as ornate molded plaster moldings, medallions, panels, and more.

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