Thursday, July 5, 2012

Paint by Date

Welcome back, readers! All of us here at Strawbery Banke hope you are enjoying this beautiful weather after a week of rain and that you are planning to come visit in the near future!

As a living history museum, Strawbery Banke prides itself on maintaining historically accurate details in all aspects of our work. Strawbery Banke is unique to the living museum world in the fact that it is not just a colonial museum. The many houses here do not represent only one time period, but a range of several centuries so as to broaden the experience that we give. Strawbery Banke strives to show its visitors a change over time by rehabilitating and restoring houses to different time periods, helping to show the development of Strawbery Banke and the Puddle Dock neighborhood throughout history. The construction and architectural elements of the houses are only two aspects in the Heritage House Program that helps us to create a historically accurate site. Over the course of time, as can be seen in the architecture of historic houses, styles have changed and aesthetic preferences have evolved, and continue to evolve. This is evidenced in house structure, size, interior/exterior decoration, and even paint color. Earlier this week historic paint expert, Sally Zimmerman came to visit Strawbery Banke to help us get a better idea of what the exterior paint colors of a house in a given time period would be. Armed with paint indexes she took Elizabeth Farish, Chief Curator and Historic Preservation intern, Catey Fischer on a walk through the museum to answer their questions about how to make the Heritage Houses as accurate to their time period as possible through color...


The first stop on their tour was Lowd House. Lowd house is a part of the Heritage House Program and has been restored to what it would have been in 1810. Currently the Lowd House is painted in a yellow ochre color, which Sally informed would be an accurate color for this time period. She started by explaining that there were three main elements that were looked at when deciding on paint color: body/clapboards, trim, and window sashes/doors. She defined the process of distinguishing as follows, "the body is the clapboards or stone, everything else is trim--unless you can walk on it, or it moves (i.e. windows and doors)" Typically these three different elements would each have their own paint color, however, this color varied depending on the time period.

Lowd House


Sally explained that in the early 1800s the body color and trim color would offer only slight variation in their shading. If the house was painted a yellow ochre color like Lowd, the window sashes and trim would be a slightly lighter color, but most likely some shade of yellow or off white. It was not until the 1830s and later that we started to see darker shades used for shutters and doors. She also pointed out that bright white colors that we see on houses nowadays would not have existed earlier than the 1920s because we had not harnessed the same chemicals (titanium dioxide) that are used to brighten the paint. As a result off-white was common in the 19th century. Much of the paint that was used in the first half of the 19th century would have been based off of several different earth tones, such as the yellow ochre that Lowd House is currently painted. The explanation for this is simply that the people of the period needed to use what was available to them because chemical pigments did not start showing up until the 1850s. Before then, people had to rely on natural pigments to color the paint which was a basic mixture of white lead and linseed oil. Outdoor paint colors needed to be more durable to survive the rain and heat in the summer and the long New England winters. Blue and green were very uncommon for the outdoor paint color because blue was not a durable pigment and blue is needed to make green. Shades of yellows, reds and browns would have been more commonly used in the early half of the 19th century. However, all the paint was hand mixed and measured by eye so it is possible that two houses from the same time period, using the same paint color can vary slightly based on the amount of dry pigment that was added to the white lead and linseed oil mixture. While exact colors were not always consistent, basic shades were similar during any given time period.

Example of how the trim and window sashes are different colors, but only slightly. It was not until the later half of the 1800s that trim and window sashes had a darker contrast to each other. While the colors are accurate, typically the body color would not match the trim color, as it does here. Good thing we have Sally to help us out!  


The standard in the 19th century was for houses to be three different colors. Currently the Lowd House's clapboard and trim are painted the same color, with a slight variation in the color of the window sashes. Typically there would be a third color on the house somewhere, most likely on the door, which is the case currently with Lowd sporting a green door. It was not uncommon for a simpler house to be monochromatic, whereas a fancier one would traditionally have three colors in its paint scheme. The three color paint scheme was still around in the latter half of the 19th century, which can be seen on the Jackson House. Sally pointed out that in the later years of the 19th century the triple color scheme was still the norm however, the trim, window sashes, and doors would most likely have been painted darker colors and the body would have remained a lighter shade. The typical window and trim colors for the time period shifted from a brownish-yellow to  a tudor brown, brown, or ochre color. The doors would also be painted a shade of brown but darker than the windows and trim or even a brown-red color. 


In contrast to the wooden build of Jackson and Lowd Houses, the Shapley Townhouse was also a stop on the tour to get more insight on what would have been a historically accurate color for a brick building to use for the trim, windows and doors. Sally informed us that it was very common to look at mortar color in order to determine the paint color that would be used on the exterior. They did not want to the windows to stick out with colorful shades, but instead it was common to try and match the window sashes and trim to the color of the mortar that was used to adhere the stone or brick together. The idea was to make the wood look like stone, which is the plan for the townhouse once it is painted. There is a bump out on the second story of the Shapley Townhouse which is currently a brown-yellow color but will eventually be painted a color to match the brick.
Trim on Shapley Townhouse windows as they are currently painted. These will be painted to match the color of the mortar in between the bricks.


The bump out on the Shapley Townhouse that will be painted to match the brick.






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