History of Color in Home Exteriors

The chronology of paint and color in American architecture

By Denise Turner, ASID, CID, CMG

Today's homes come in a broad spectrum of colors—from traditional white to tinted neutrals and even whimsical hues that emphasize a house's unique features. Yet exterior colors on American homes were not always so varied. Understanding the history and use of paint and color in U.S. architecture can help you select the best colors for your home's exterior.

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If your house is deemed architecturally historic in nature, it's important to select the appropriate paint colors for its exterior. When deciding on a historically accurate color, consider the paint colors available at the time when the style of house was first built. Many factors influenced the formulation of those colors such as the availability of pigments, paint composition, and trends of the time.

Paint & Color Formulation

Paint composition throughout history has shaped color choices. Traditional paints of years past were simpler than today's formulations, using only three components: linseed oil binder, a turpentine vehicle, and a pigment (typically white lead) which provided opacity as well as color.

•    American homes were not always painted. Prior to the Revolutionary War, homes were built of clapboards and shingles harvested from the finest old-growth eastern white pine, white cedar, and white oak. These higher quality woods were impervious to the elements and insects.

•    In the early 19th century, the world had a limited selection of color choices in paint. The only pigments stable enough, affordable, and abundant were used on exteriors and derived from natural, organic colorants such as red iron oxide, lamp black, or colored clays (raw sienna, yellow ochre, and raw umber).

Casual Transitional Outdoors
TerraCotta Properties

Prussian blue, verdigris green, and other chemically produced pigments were scarce and extremely expensive. In addition, they were subject to unstable color shifts and consequently not used as frequently. Synthetic organic dyes and pigments were developed in 1856, making them readily available and affordable. This time in paint development history expanded consumers' options, changing the color of the American landscape.

•    The impact of paint composition can also be seen in white lead's modern substitute, titanium dioxide, which was introduced in the early 1920s. Titanium dioxide is brighter and with a much higher reflective index than white lead. If you desire to obtain a traditional appearance for a house built prior to 1920, off-white is appropriate since it is closer to white lead.

•    Paint in the 20th century went through numerous chemical and technological advancements. In-store paint color mixing became possible in the 1960s, and while getting a "custom color"  previously meant blending two ready-mixed colors in a specialty hue, paint colors can now be made to match just about anything.

Colonial Homes: Monochromatic Choices

Colonial homes built prior to 1780 were painted in affordable deep, earth-based hues such as yellow ochre, charcoal gray, brown, pea soup gray-greens, and barn-red siding with off-white sash and trim. Monochromatic (tints and shades of one hue) paint color schemes with siding and trim provided an additional way to achieve the earth-toned look for Colonial houses.

The popular "Spanish brown," a reddish-brown pigmented with red iron oxide, was ever-present in the 18th century homes, used for both a primer and finish coat for interiors and exteriors.

Open Traditional Outdoors
Barbara Eberlein

Federal, Greek & Roman Revival: Lighter Hues

By the early 1800s, the pendulum swung to lighter color schemes. From the early 1790s through the 1830s, our fledgling nation was captivated by classical Greek and Roman themes that mimicked architectural antiquities such as colonial, federal, and Greek revival. This classical trend favored light, delicate colors, such as off-white or cream on siding, trim, and window sashes. 

Also during this time, exterior shutters came into common use. Shutters were painted for protection, typically in dark green. The "shutter green" we know today most likely began as a much brighter hue. Copper-based components, used in all the early green pigments, darkened over time due to exposure to the elements. The color names of this period are of French origin, such as verdigris and paris green. 

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