In late 2011, bright chrome yellow replaced muted blue on the interior walls of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s historic residence. The more subdued paint color had been in place since 1936, so the change sent shock waves through the historic restoration community. As garish and historically irreverent as the vivid yellow hue initially seemed, it fits Jefferson’s own taste better than the house’s previous, subtler shade. In fact, Jefferson went out of his way to acquire lead chromate yellow pigment in 1815, soon after it was invented in France. From a design perspective, Jefferson was very much a forward thinker, and he would likely approve of his former home’s eye-catching new color.
Paint chronology is a formal term for the sequence of colors on a given surface. When a painted surface is scraped to reveal older layers, those layers have generally been faded by sunlight, oxidation, or the passage of time. In the 1920s, restoration workers found muted blue paint beneath Monticello’s topcoat and assumed, mistakenly, that Jefferson favored subtle hues. Since then, such technologies as cross-section microscopy and elemental lab analysis have revealed the actual historic colors of Mount Vernon, Montpelier, and other landmarks. Sophisticated tools can now “read” paint residues as well as oils and washes left behind from previous eras.
As it turns out, America’s past was full of vibrant paint colors. In the early 18th century, Prussian blue became the first chemically synthesized paint color. Verdigris green followed not long thereafter. Toward the end of the 18th century, such pigments as white lead, indigo, burnt umber, and Venetian red — the last of which goes back to antiquity — were commonplace. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the rise of “polychrome” color schemes. This development led to such creations as San Francisco’s beautiful row houses, widely known as “painted ladies.”
Prior to the industrial age, painters had to hand-mix pigments and combine them with linseed oil, water, or an amalgam of milk, lime, and Neat’s oil. Today, many water-based paints with low volatile organic compound (VOC) levels recreate historic hues. The pre-Civil War U.S., the Queen Anne period of the 1890s, and other eras had distinctive color schemes. Identifying when a historic home was built makes it easy to find the hues that authentically match its architecture.
Several major U.S. paint companies offer historic palettes. Valspar’s color chart includes 250 hues identified at National Trust for Historic Preservation sites. (Conveniently, all 250 are sold at Lowe’s.) Similarly, California Paints and Historic New England have assembled a collection of 149 paint colors from the 17th to 20th centuries. Some have such wonderful, evocative names as Flowering Chestnut, Redrock Canyon, and Bargeboard Brown. Farrow & Ball makes historic hues in small batches, and Benjamin Moore and Pratt & Lambert offer historic color lines as well.