It all began in 1936 with the introduction of the Colonial Williamsburg color chart created to promote interest in their 1770’s paint colors.
The Colonial Williamsburg collection changed drastically over the years as research and technology improved to understand these colors.
Today most of the big paint companies have their own specialty color collections they label as “historic”.
But are these colors actually historic or is this just a gimmick to sell paint?
How Does One Find Historic Paint Colors?
There are basically two ways to research historic paint colors. One way is an involved scientific process of Paint Analysis. The other way is from archived early paint brochures, catalogs, and house journals.
In the early days, natural pigments were used, and paint was mixed on-site resulting in color variations. By 1870 paint was now manufactured and available in cans. Color brochures then became available. Many of these historic brochures are archived in The Athenaeum of Philadelphia and although the colors on these brochures have faded, the original colors can now be determined.
So the good news is that Paint Analysis technology has greatly improved. Priming coats were thought to be the finish coats or the colors were incorrectly matched to darkened or washed-out paints. Architectural Paint Research techniques have progressively advanced to produce better and more precise results.
Authentic versus Inspired Historic Paint Colors
Paint manufacturers promote a pallet of Historic Paint Colors that range from Colonial times through the 1950’s. Are these claims to authentic historic colors really historic?
Ms. Tania Alam wrote her thesis at Columbia University on ‘The Evolution of American Historic Color Palettes”. Although quite long, I recommend you read this. A link is supplied at the end of this article.
I’m sorry to say that I am not happy with what was discovered. I hate to provide this information to you and to myself. What seems to be credible research by paint manufacturers is not what we are led to believe.
This does raise the question of how important is it to display authenticity with regards to historic colors on old buildings. Some of the homeowners I work with are satisfied with historically inspired colors on their house. There is nothing wrong with this at all but there are those of us who would like to be assured the colors on our house are what they are stated to be.
Roger Moss was a past director of The Athenaeum of Philadelphia. He has access to archival materials which comprised early paint brochures, historic color cards and house journals stored.
He is most known for his books:
Shame on Sherwin Williams
In 1981 Mr. Moss worked with Sherwin Williams to create their chart – Heritage Colors 1820-1920. Colors were mostly taken from historic brochures. Sherwin Williams originally developed this color pallet to promote a more expensive type of paint. Anything labeled historic became a good marketing term.
Not long after, Sherwin Williams modified most of these colors, discontinued some, and changed the color numbers. Some colors were modified for more contemporary tastes – and better sales. What Roger Moss designated as a historic color was no longer the same. Sherwin Williams messed up a good thing!
The current historic colors for Sherwin Williams are in the 2800 series. While we are not able to certify these colors as authentic, they can certainly pass for period colors and I personally do like and recommend them. What I like is not the point however. In an attempt to certify these colors as historic, the author of the thesis was refused an interview with anyone from Sherwin Williams. It is sad they would not cooperate with the author and merely referred her to their website. Bad Sherwin Williams!
A similar situation occurred in a 2010 article in The Old House Journal. The historic paint consultant took a historic color chart and modified the colors for today’s taste.
The Munsell Color System is the standard for coding all colors in the world. In this blog post – “Historic Paint Colors versus Munsell Colors.” I explain what the Munsell system is, show some of the differences, and present a chart with the more accurate historic colors.
Historic Paint Charts Today
In her thesis, Tania Alam investigates the criteria used by paint manufacturers to determine authenticity. The following are her results.
California Paints produced a color pallet created by Historic New England – “Historic Colors of America”.
Even with those selling color as preservation, such as “New England’s Historic Colors of America” the decision to include colors, which were not scientifically determined, or those that were found on objects and not on building surfaces, renders their announcement of sharing with consumers – specialized knowledge about historic paint through a line of authentic colors, partially incorrect, as they do not distinguish architecture from objects.
“It is safe to assume, based on statements about the Historic Colors of America pallet on its launch in 1997, that the pallet includes colors developed from paint analysis performed at the conservation center using cross-section microscopy, but what the specific sources of those colors were, I do not know.” Sally Zimmerman, 2017.
The philosophy behind this palette is quite clear it was selling preservation to people.
It would appear that there are three distinct trends in the ways that historic color palettes were created. One arises from academic architectural paint research, second from the study of historical documents, and the third derives from a good imagination and design knowledge of compatible shades that would resonate with the contemporary market.
In reality, the process of creating a “historic color pallet” is likely to involve all three factors with imagination taking up the bigger role. The historic color palettes that do not follow any academic research are highly decorative but inaccurate representations.
Beginning with data gathered from scientific and historic research, “historic color pallets” branched out to include colors derived not only from historic buildings but also from surroundings and contemporary color trends at the time of their creation.
To the average consumer there is no way of knowing which “historic color pallets” are based upon architectural paint research and which are creations without any accurate evidence. This raises question if manufacturers are not trying to cater to a more contemporary taste in colors as a way of attracting younger generations under the banner of “historic”.
Colors from the palettes are more likely to be used wherever the consumer feels appropriate or based on the consumer’s own personal preferences. This is fine however it is very unfortunate that a lot of time and research has been wasted by clumping the authentic and the inspired colors together in one pallet.