This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization. Read more about the archive here.
Paint has two key functions in the built environment—protection and decoration. Documents contained in the BTHL explore how these different purposes were marketed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; for example, exterior paints and coatings were generally marketed for their durability whereas interior products were more often promoted for their finishing qualities. The changing preference in colors for decor is another pattern revealed in the marketing materials archived in the BTHL.
In the period following the Civil War, the paint industry focused on producing ready-mixed paints, which we still use today. This era also marked the completion of a national rail network, which spurred the availability of branded products across the country. Some of the first paint marketing materials of the period were called “color chip cards,” which comprised a sheet of paper with attached color samples. The BTHL contains several color cards from the late 19th century, including a 1884 booklet (shown below) from the Harrison Bros. of Philadelphia that features images of exterior residential paint schemes and ample detail about this highly decorative period of domestic architecture.
Marketing paints to homeowners for their decorative potential has long been part of the equation, and catalogs of this type were particularly popular in the 20th century. Titles like Modern Color Styling and The Home Decorator speak to this approach. One of the most unusual catalogs of this variety in the BTHL is a marketing-brochure-turned-coloring-book from the Alabastine Co., in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The mid-20th century is known, as far as paint is concerned, for more than just the pink bathroom. Catalogs from Sherwin-Williams offer a particularly useful snapshot of the era by showing how paint schemes were applied in the residential sphere. The company's Home Decorator series was produced annually for more than 30 years, including a noteworthy 1939 edition with custom illustrations by artist Rockwell Kent.
Below are a few colorful catalogs from the BTHL that offer a look back.
Liquid Cottage Colors, c. 1885, Kellogg Oil Paint and Varnish Co., Buffalo, N.Y.
Among the oldest paint-related documents in the BTHL are several paint-chip cards dating from the late 19th century. With color printing still in its infancy, paint manufacturers attached paint chips to cards, fliers, and even posters to showcase the hues they had on offer.
Town and Country House Painting, 1884, Harrison Bros., Philadelphia
The use of color printing to show paint schemes for the entire house was a popular technique around the turn of the century. This catalog features eight different house types, each of which was illustrated with five unique paint schemes. Most of the houses shown represent the popular residential styles of the 1880s, but the catalog also includes examples of older houses and commercial buildings.
Paints: Price Wrecker No. 118, c. 1905, Chicago House Wrecking Co., Chicago
The Chicago House Wrecking Co. (later Harris Brothers) was a large manufacturer of building materials and kit houses. The company also published a building-materials catalog as well as specialty catalogs on plumbing, heating, roofing, wallpaper, and paint, including the one shown above.
Alabastine Home Color Book, 1928, Alabastine Co., Grand Rapids, Mich.
Alabastine was an unusual paint coating sold as a dry powder that was meant to be mixed with water to create a durable interior finish. The product was also promoted for use with stencils. This catalog featured a series of color views and black and white coloring-book pages that users were meant to fill in.
The Modern Method of Decorating Walls, c. 1913, Peaslee-Gaulert Co., Louisville, Ky.
Paint and wallpaper have long been competing choices for wall finishes in domestic interiors. This catalog features a variety of room interiors with details on products such as paint, wallpapers, and decorative accessories that are marketed as complementary.
Glass, Paints, Varnishes, and Brushes: Their History, Manufacture, and Use, 1923, PPG, Pittsburgh
This PPG publication from 1923 offers a comprehensive look at the then-glassmaker’s products with a brief history of glass, paint, and paintbrush manufacturing. The paint section includes color chips and illustrations of interior and exterior paint schemes.
Modern Color Styling for Your Home, c. 1935, Lowe Brothers, Dayton, Ohio
This Lowe Brothers paint catalog takes an approach typical for the time of comparing women’s fashion and residential paint schemes, all under the rubric of “modern color styling.”
The Home Decorator and Color Guide, 1939, Sherwin-Williams, Cleveland
Sherwin-Williams produced this annual catalog for more than 30 years. The 1939 volume is noteworthy for its use of illustrations commissioned from artist Rockwell Kent.
Home Color Style, c. 1940, Benjamin Moore, Cleveland
This catalog gives a room-by-room view of domestic interiors with color schemes for the walls, trim, casework, and floors.
DuPont Home Painting and Color Guide, 1959, DuPont
The midcentury homeowner had a variety of options when it came to using paint. Color schemes characterized as “harmonious,” “complementary,” or “analogous” were illustrated for both traditional and modern house designs.
Home Decorator and How to Paint Book, 1961, Sherwin-Williams, Cleveland
In a later iteration of Sherwin-Williams’s annual catalog, the cover illustration is distinctively modern while most of the illustrations show traditional interiors.