We take house paint 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. However, a short history of paint can be just as fascinating as the long version. In order to expound on house paint's evolution, we have presented some snapshots to illustrate our human needs of security and beauty in our dwellings.
In the beginning, cavemen would mix certain substances with animal fat to create paint; they would then use the paint to draw pictures and add colors on their walls. Red and yellow ochre, hematite, manganese oxide, and charcoal were all employed as color elements. Ancient Egyptian painters mixed an oil or fat base with color elements like semiprecious stones, ground glass, earth, animal blood, or lead around 3150 B.C. White, black, blue, red, yellow, and green were their hues of choice. In England, around the turn of the 14th century, house painters started guilds that established standards for their profession and kept trade secrets secret. By the 17th century, technology and new practices in house paint grew.
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. Unknown authors published "cookbooks" that had recipes for different paints. 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. These Colonial paint "cooks" often used food items like egg whites, milk, rice, and coffee.
Water and oil were the main bases for paint creation from the 17th century to the 19th. Each naturally held some colors more than others, and there were differences in the durability and coat, depending on which mixture was used. Water-based paints were used for ceilings and plaster walls, and oils were used for joinery. Often times, homeowners would request walls that looked like marble, wood, or bronze and ceilings that looked like a blue sky with fat white clouds. Painters of this period would fulfill these requests. Even in 1638, a historic home named "Ham House" 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. During this time period in paint's evolutionary history, oil and pigment were hand-mixed to make a stiff paste, which is still done to this day. Well-ground pigment tends to disperse almost completely in oil. Unfortunately, before the 18th century, hand-grinding could expose painters to white-lead powder, which could result in lead poisoning. Even though lead paint was toxic, it was popular during this time because of its durability, and even today it's difficult to replicate that hardiness in paint. 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.
During the 1700s, paint production underwent a transformation. In 1700 in Boston, MA, the first American paint mill opened its doors. The Englishman Marshall Smith in 1718, created a "Machine or Engine for the Grinding of Colours," which created a competition between countries to grind pigment more effectively. In 1741, the English company Emerton and Manby publicized the "Horse-Mills" that it used to grind its pigment, thus allowing them to sell paint at unbeatable prices. 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. Nontoxic zinc oxide became a usable base for white pigment, thanks to the Europeans, during this time; it came to the US in 1855.
Roller mills had begun to grind pigment and grain by the end of the 1800s, and the guild system begun in England became a trade union network. Mass production of paint was once only a dream, but the supply of linseed oil, a cheap binding agent that protected wood as well, made that dream come true.
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.
Sherwin Williams, a giant behemoth in the paint world today, was founded in 1866. 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.
Benjamin Moore, one of Sherwin Williams top competitors, was born in 1883. Twenty-four years passed, and the company created a research department headed up by one chemist. Ever since, Benjamin Moore has contributed almost unbelievable discoveries in paint technology, but its color-matching system, unveiled in 1982 and wholly computer-based, is unmatched paint is still lucrative today; around $20.9 billion in paint was sold in 2006.
Though house paint is most frequently applied to the surfaces of a home, many artists have used it to bring their canvases to life. John Frost, an American painter who began his career in 1919, employed the use of house paint to paint the history of his hometown, a tiny village called Marblehead in Massachusetts. 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 exceedingly innovative paint industry. The major conflict known as the Second world war contributed to the supply of linseed oil's demise, so chemists used a combination of alcohols and acids to create alkyds, artificial resins that are a substitute for natural oil.
Most house paint today is acrylic, or water-based, paint; however, milk paint, which reached the height of its popularity in the 19th century for its unassuming hues, is cropping up again thanks to the environmental movement. commercial painting company
has origins dating to pre-history.
To be general, milk paint doesn't contain volatile organic compounds, commonly known as VOCs. Latex paint, however, does contain VOCs, making them potentially dangerous to pets and humans. If you're exposed to VOCs for an extended period of time, it could lead to nerve or organ damage, and it may even cause cancer. Luckily, many paint companies bring forth low- or even zero-VOC paints. By EPA standards, the term, "zero-VOC," means that each liter of paint has less than 5 grams of VOCs. Other non-VOC alternates are 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 a long period it's traveled to add a little beauty to your life…