A Brief but Fascinating History of House Paint

ECOS Paints 02/02/2022
A Brief but Fascinating History of House Paint
When asked how to freshen a room’s interior, the easiest answer you can give is to apply a fresh coat of paint to the walls. After all, this seems like a no-brainer. You can find many paint manufacturers, multitudes of paint colors, and countless ways to apply paints today.

We’re so used to just being able to toss a coat of paint on the walls that it’s easy for us to take it for granted. But paint wasn’t always the easily accessible and multifaceted tool it is today, although it has been around longer than many people realize. Here’s a brief but fascinating history of house paint to help expand your appreciation of it.

Cave Paintings

Most of us have seen photographs of cave walls decorated with images of animals and people. Although we refer to them as cave paintings, we often forget that these were the first steps into the world of house paint.

Ancient people mixed animal fat or spit with pigments to make these paints. To make black paints, they would use charcoal as the pigment. For red paints, they used soil heavy in iron oxide. In some cases, they may have created other color options by using berry juices, crushed roots, and even blood.

While many ancient artists used their fingers to do their painting, many artists used tools as well. Some people used moss, feathers, lichens, and twigs as brushes and blending tools. There are even places where it appears that people created an airbrush effect by blowing paint through hollow bones.

Egyptian Tombs

The first of the great tombs of Egypt existed well over 4,000 years ago. Even so, if you were to wander through the labyrinthine tunnels, you would find walls decorated with paintings among the hieroglyphics and sarcophaguses. And these paintings are still vibrantly colorful even after all these years.

This is due to the dry climate of Egypt. Some of the advances made in wall paint during the time of the Egyptians also helped. People used gypsum as a pigment, and they used more elaborate bonding agents like resin and egg tempera to create these paints. These paints now came in a wider variety of colors.

Rather than apply the paint directly to the stone walls, the Egyptians would add a layer of dried plaster that they would paint over. After painting, they would then add a layer of protective resin which helped them last longer. Of course, only the very wealthy had paintings in their homes in those days.

Grecian House Painting

The painting that the Greeks did was also highly influential in history. Two types, in particular, stand out, which we’ll cover here.

Minoan Frescos

While the Egyptians painted tombs, another civilization was making its own painting advancements 400 miles away on the Greek island of Crete. Like the Egyptians, the Minoans painted plaster rather than stone walls. However, they painted the plaster when it was still wet. This method created a style of painting called frescoes.

Frescoes were a common sight on the walls of wealthy homes even when the Greek culture replaced the Minoans’ culture. Artists typically painted them with images of everyday life, nature, or scenes from folk stories and legends.

Grecian Whitewash

But frescoes weren’t the only way the Greeks decorated their walls with paint. Due to the abundant sunshine of the Mediterranean and dark stones being the primary building material of the day, Greek homes could get hot inside very quickly during the summer. To counteract this, people turned to white paint.

Grecian whitewash was known to have a desirable thickness and extreme durability. But its resilience was due to the fact that artists made it with lead. From here, lead-based paints would become the standard for well over a thousand years.

Medieval House Painters

People continued to revolutionize how they made paint, developing exciting new paint colors like Ultramarine. At the same time, the practice of house painting was changing too. As early as the 1200s, Europe saw the rise of professional house painters. Specifically, a London trades guild known as “The Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers” came into being.

People tasked members of this guild with painting everything from wooden barges to royal portraits. Among these jobs, of course, was the task of painting houses, often using whitewash and egg tempura.

The Rise of Ready-Made Paints

The Industrial Revolution, which started in the mid-18th century, marked a huge shift in society as people began to rely more heavily on technology. And we see this influence within the world of paints.

Before the official start of the Industrial Revolution, the United States saw the advent of its first paint mill in Boston, Massachusetts. This mill, started by Thomas Child around 1700, produced its paints in a granite trough where people crushed pigments with a ball-shaped piece of granite.

But even at this point, colonists would only buy the pigment, which they then had to mix themselves. It wasn’t until 1867, just before the start of the Second Industrial Revolution, that customers could buy paints ready to use.

These paints, patented by Ohio inventor D.R. Averill, were massively successful and came in a hundred colors. People even reported that big names used them, such as P.T. Barnum. Companies like Sherwin Williams and Benjamin Moore eventually picked up this model.

The 20th Century

The 20th century was a time of scientific innovation. Thus, paint compositions also changed a great deal during this time. Here are two hallmark shifts that occurred.

The Advent of Synthetic Paints

Until this point, artists typically made paint with ingredients from nature, including roots, lead, semi-precious stones, and linseed oil. However, these ingredients were often difficult to come by during World War II. Because of this, the mid-19th century saw a rise in manufacturers using synthetic resins and polymers to make paint.

A Farewell to Lead-Based Paints

As mentioned, people began using lead-based paints during the time of the ancient Greeks. While many were aware that consumption and intense exposure to lead was dangerous, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that people realized how dangerous it could be in paint.

In 1979, a child psychiatrist and pediatrician named Herbert Needleman noticed that children living in areas that used significant amounts of lead-based paint often exhibited the same signs of mental impairment as those with lead poisoning. His research led lawmakers to ban lead as an ingredient in paints.

And thus, the fascinating history of house paints has brought us to the modern era—a world where you can get a wide variety of non-toxic, ready-made paints. If you want to join in on a proud history, check out ECOS Paints’ collection of zero VOC* interior eggshell paints to refresh your home’s interior today.

*Zero VOC - Conforms to CDPH 01350 (VOC emissions test taken at 11, 12, & 14 days for classroom & office use).

A Brief but Fascinating History of House Paint