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Painting Your Home in 18th Century America

We all know the do’s and don’ts of painting — use painter’s tape, semi-gloss in the bathroom or kitchen, and definitely throw down a tarp to catch the paint drippings.

But what did they do in 18th century America?

Every historic house we visit had to have had some sort of paint on the walls 200+ years ago, but what did they use?

Craven Hall, Located in Warminster, Bucks County. Credit: Craven Hall Historical Society.

It should come as no surprise that lead was one of the most common types of paints during the 17th century (it wasn’t even banned in the U.S. until 1978!) — they were the most durable (albeit toxic). Besides lead paint, water and oil became popular bases for house paint, especially once paint production drastically improved with technological innovations, like with the first-ever paint mill in Boston, Massachusetts, founded in 1700 by Thomas Child. Prior to the mill (and for those who couldn’t afford more expensive paints), paint production was done purely by hand through grinding the pigment with oil. In 1718, Marshall Smith’s “Machine or Engine for the Grinding of Colors” significantly improved paint production by making the grinding of pigmentation more effective (though not much else is known about this invention).

By the 1800s, most of the American paint mills were steam-powered, with roller mills grinding pigment, enabling for mass production of commercial paints. In 1866, over 140 years after Marshall Smith’s invention, Sherwin Williams Paint Company was born. Founded by businessmen Henry Sherwin and Edward Williams in Cleveland, Ohio, the duo developed the tin cans that would allow consumers to reseal the paint — something we probably take for granted today (looking at you, three cans of gray latex paint in my garage…)!

In 1732, Eliza Smith published, “The Compleat [sic] Housewife; or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion,” containing approximately 500 colonial recipes, 200 medicinal recipes, and several paint “recipes.” Take a look at some of Eliza’s painting instructions below, and let us know if you give any of them a try!

To Make Yellow Varnish

Take one quart of Spirit of Wine, and seven ounces of Seed-Lake, half an ounce of Sandarack, a quarter of an ounce of Gum-Anime, and one dram of Mastich. Let these infuse for 36 or 40 hours, strain it off, and keep it for use. Tis good for Frames of Chairs, or Tables, or anything black or brown; do it on with a brush three or four times, nine times if you polish it afterwards, and a day between every doing : Lay it very thin the first and second time, afterwards something thicker.

To Make White Varnish

To one quarter of Spirit of Wine, take eight ounces of Sandarack well wash’d in Spirit of Wine, that Spirit of Wine will make the yellow varnish; then add to it a quarter of an ounce of Gum-Anime well pick’d, half an ounce of Camphire, and one dram of Mastick; steep this as long as the yellow varnish, then strain it out and keep it for use.

(*Note spelling of words in “The Compleat [sic] Housewife; or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion,” are true spellings excerpted from the work. Most of these words or phrases will still appear in a Google search with slight variations.)

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