This past Spring we have been hard at work refreshing some of the interior paint at the 1900 house. It is difficult to find time to do small projects like this as the 1900 house is in use year round. Still, we’ve managed (with the help of some good volunteers) to paint the trim in both the dining room and the parlor and have plans to complete the rest of the trim and the ceilings on the main level. Freshening up paint could have been done in 1900 as well, with ready made oil paint purchased from the Sears and Roebuck Catalog.
I did a little research about house paint at the turn of the century and came across a helpful book entitled House Paints, 1900-1960 by Dr. Harriet A.L. Standeven and published by the Getty Foundation. In the first chapter of her book Dr. Standeven describes the transition of paints and how they became more accessible for the home. In 2012 many of us will take on home paint projects ourselves with paint that is highly accessible in hundreds of different colors at your local hardware store. Dr. Standheven suggests that two things made paint inexpensive to purchase and easy in application; the introduction of ready-made paints in the 19th century and synthetic resins in the 20th century. The information about early paints in the following two paragraphs can also be found in her book.
The earliest incantations of paint were mixes of different naturally occurring ingredients such as tallow, which could be mixed with paint to make it more waterproof. These paints would be mixed shortly before application by professional painters. Then the Industrial Revolution came, new trains, buildings, and bridges demanded protection and decoration that paint could provide. This led to specialists in the fields of paint and varnish and mass production of paints from highly guarded recipes.
The first of these ready mix paints were unreliable or made with cheap ingredients in an attempt by the manufacturers to cut costs. While they were of questionable quality, these paints were none-the-less accessible for amateurs. By the late 19th century, serviceable, ready mix paints were available in flat, gloss, and eggshell sheen for both interior and exterior projects.
The availability of different colors of paints is made evident by opening up the 1897 Sears, Roebuck, and Company Catalog. According to the advertisement, “To have your House or Barn well-painted, requires first and foremost GOOD PAINT. To get good paint usually requires more good money than you care to spend, and many people pay less for a poor article and find that the job has to be done over in a year.” (pg. 21) According to the 1897 catalog you could send for “fine color card” of the different paints you could purchase to help you make your selection. When you look at the catalog in 1902, the company requests that you send two cents in for the paint color book because, “It is an expensive book to get up and we ask 2 cents from each applicant as an evidence of good faith and to prevent thousands from send out of mere curiosity, which would mean a big expense to us and which would compel us to add to our selling prices on paint.”
The colors in the 2 catalogs are virtually the same and rather widespread over the spectrum, though ordering paint without the color book would be intimidating. For example, if you would like a shade of green would you prefer Nile Green, Olive Drab, Emerald Green, Apple Green, Willow Green, Pea Green, or Myrtle Green. What color do you think Beaver or Drab are? or would you really like a Lead colored wall. Still, I suppose if you were going with the basics Black of White (interior or exterior) you could purchase a gallon, site unseen for $1 in 1897 (or $0.98 in 1902). A few of the colors had higher costs so you might reconsider the Emerald Green or Vermillion at $1.80 a gallon. These are just the house paints, barn and fence paints came in fewer colors and in 1897 would run $0.65 a gallon or $0.50 for a 50 gallon barrel (doing forget the shipping charges!). I wonder if our out buildings would classify as Oxide Red or Tuscan Maroon.
The paints were all of the Pink Label brand, “Quality guaranteed equal to any in the world. A new departure in our paint and oil department for 1897.” The paints would still need to be thinned with boiled linseed oil. The catalog also has floor paints, varnishes, enamel paints, and wood fillers in the paint department, a regular one stop shop for all your painting needs.
So come out and see the bright newly painted trim at the 1900 house when we open on May 1st, and be thankful you can choose from the array of paint colors at your local hardware store that are delightfully, lead free.