We take house painting for granted as a way to decorate our homes and protect surfaces against drying, rot, and the elements. Yet this seemingly simple product has a long, fascinating history – much too long and fascinating to summarize in just one essay. A brief history, however, is better than no history at all. In that spirit, we present a few snapshots of house paint’s evolution in order to heighten your appreciation of it, and to provide some perspective on humans’ need to secure and beautify their dwelling places.
Forty millennium ago, cave inhabitants combined various substances with animal fat to make paint, which they used to add pictures and colors to the walls of their crude homes. This of course is The Cave of Lascaux. Red and yellow ochre, hematite, manganese oxide, and charcoal were all employed as color elements. Starting around 3150 B.C., ancient Egyptian painters mixed a base of oil or fat with color elements like ground glass or semiprecious stones, lead, earth, or animal blood. White, black, blue, red, yellow, and green were their hues of choice. At the turn of the 14th century, house painters in England created guilds, which established standards for the profession and kept trade secrets under lock and key. By the 17th century, new practices and technologies were shaking up the world of house paint even more. In this era of reality TV and manufactured celebrities, it can be hard to remember the definition of modesty. For the Pilgrims, who populated the American colonies in the 17th century, modesty meant avoiding all displays of joy, wealth, or vanity. Painting one’s house was considered highly immodest, and even sacrilegious. In 1630, a Charlestown preacher ran afoul of the growing society’s mores by decorating his home’s interior with paint; he was brought up on criminal charges of sacrilege. Even colonial Puritanism, however, failed to silence the demand for house paint. Anonymous authors wrote “cookbooks” that offered recipes for various kinds and colors of paint. One popular process, known as the Dutch method, combined lime and ground oyster shells to make a white wash, to which iron or copper oxide – for red or green color, respectively – could be added. Colonial paint “cooks” also used items from the pantry, including milk, egg whites, coffee, and rice, to turn out their illegal product.
From the 17th century until the 19th, oil and water were the primary bases for paint production. Each held certain colors better than others, and there were differences in cost and durability between them, too. Ceilings and plaster walls generally called for water paints, while joinery demanded oils. Some homeowners wanted walls that looked like wood, marble, or bronze and ceilings that resembled a blue sky with puffy white clouds. Painters of the time routinely fulfilled such requests, which seem fairly eccentric by today’s standards. In 1638, a historic home known as Ham House, located in Surrey, England, was renovated. The multi-step process involved the application of primer, an undercoat or two, and a finishing coat of paint to elaborate paneling and cornices throughout the house. At this point in paint’s evolution, pigment and oil were mixed by hand to make a stiff paste – a practice still employed today. Well-ground pigment tends to disperse almost completely in oil. Before the 18th century, hand-grinding often exposed painters to an excess of white-lead powder, which could bring about lead poisoning. Despite its toxicity, lead paint was popular at the time due to its durability, which remains difficult to equal. Fortunately, painters eventually added air extraction systems to their workshops, thus reducing the health risks of grinding lead-based pigment. Not until 1978 did the U.S. finally ban the sale of lead house paint. Paint production transformed dramatically during the 1700s.
The first American paint mill opened in 1700 in Boston, Mass. In 1718, the Englishman Marshall Smith devised a “Machine or Engine for the Grinding of Colours,” which prompted a sort of arms race with regard to grinding pigment efficiently. In 1741, the English company Emerton and Manby publicized the “Horse-Mills” it used to grind pigment, which allowed it to sell paint at prices its rivals couldn’t match. Owner Elizabeth Emerton bragged: “One Pound of Colour ground in a Horse-Mill will paint twelve Yards of Work, whereas Colour ground any other Way, will not do half that Quantity.” As any steampunk aficionado will tell you, the turn of the 19th century meant the rise of steam power. Paint mills were no exception; at this point in time, most of them ran on steam. Another, more significant improvement also occurred around this time: Nontoxic zinc oxide became a viable base for white pigment, thanks to European ingenuity. (It came to the U.S. in 1855.) By the end of the 1800s, roller mills had started to grind pigment as well as grain, and the guild system that had organized English house painters for centuries became a network of trade unions. Mass production of paint was no longer a pipe dream, and linseed oil, a cheap binding agent that also helped protect wood, made it even easier. It was in the 19th century that decorating a home with paint became the norm rather than an outlier.
After all, paint made surfaces washable and, by sealing in wood’s natural oils, kept walls from becoming either too moist or too dry. In 1866, a future titan of the paint business, Sherwin-Williams Paint, was born. The company was the first maker of ready-to-use paint; its original product, raw umber in oil, debuted in 1873. Soon after that, cofounder Henry Sherwin developed a resealable tin can. Another current industry heavyweight, Benjamin Moore, began operations in 1883. Twenty-four years later, it added a research department powered by a single, lonely chemist. Since then, Benjamin Moore Paint has contributed a great deal to paint technology, but the company’s color-matching system, unveiled in 1982 and entirely computer-based, is still considered by many to be its most noteworthy achievement. (In the 21st century, paint remains a formidable moneymaker; roughly $20.9 billion of the stuff was sold in 2006 alone.) Though house paint is most frequently applied to the surfaces of a home, many artists have used it to bring their canvases to life. American painter John Frost, who began his career as an artist in 1919, used house paint to chronicle the history of his hometown, the tiny village of Marblehead, Mass. Picasso and many of his contemporaries used it as well. Even some modern artists, like Pollack admirer Nik Ehm, experiment with house paint as a medium. In the middle of the 20th century, necessity became the mother of invention for the increasingly innovative paint industry. World War II led to a dearth of linseed oil, so chemists combined alcohols and acids to make alkyds, artificial resins that could substitute for natural oil.
Today, most house painting paints is acrylic, or water-based, although milk paint, popular in the 19th century for its subtle hues, has become the darling of the sustainability movement thanks to its minimal environmental impact. To be specific, milk paint doesn’t contain volatile organic compounds, commonly known as VOCs. Conventional latex paint, on the other hand, does contain them, which makes it potentially hazardous to humans and pets. Extended exposure to VOCs can lead to organ or nerve damage, and some may be carcinogenic. Luckily, many paint companies produce low- or even zero-VOC paints. The term “zero-VOC,” by EPA standards, means that each liter of paint contains fewer than 5 grams of volatile compounds. Other non-VOC options include clay- and water-based paints. If you have allergies and/or chemical sensitivity, Low VOC Paint are a must. In fact, they offer practical advantages no matter what your circumstances, since their lack of strong odor lets you occupy freshly painted rooms relatively soon. Despite its outward simplicity, paint has adjusted over the millennium to conform to our aesthetic, financial, and health needs. That something so basic can allow us to express ourselves so strikingly, and elevate our mood so effectively, is almost a miracle. The next time you open a can of paint, consider how far through time it’s traveled to add a little beauty to your life.