A house of a different color

The shade on the Capitol before it was painted (left) and then after.

The shade on the Capitol before it was painted (left) and then after.

By Dawn Chase

In today’s world, the color you paint your house is a matter of aesthetics and not much else.

But in 18th-century Colonial Williamsburg, paint color reveals much more. It advertises the status of a building’s owner. And it shows that early Virginians, from the beginning, created their own vibrant style that set them apart from the British motherland.

Since the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg began almost 90 years ago, historians have tried to identify and stay true to the original colors of the buildings.

But paint analysis then involved a lot of guesswork.

Until the 1980s, analysts used a razor blade to painstakingly strip away layers of paint from fragments of each building. When they reached what they thought was the original layer, they color-matched it by eye.

“At the time, this was a cutting-edge approach, which provided the most accurate colors to historic structures,” says Matthew Webster, who, as director of architectural preservation for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, oversees work on more than 600 structures, including 88 original buildings.

That’s how the early Williamsburg palette was developed, with its muted tones and grays and minty greens among the browns and reds. The palette caught on and now is a standard color scheme for entire communities throughout the United States.

But the technology has changed.

Science Aids Analysis

Analysts now take a tiny sample of the painted wood — usually smaller than a pencil eraser  — and encase it in a clear plastic cube. They then use a high-powered microscope to examine the paint, layer by layer. They can analyze the chemistry of the paints, primers and varnishes. And they can pinpoint the original pigments and binders.

The work has gained international attention, Webster says. “Colonial Williamsburg is really at the forefront of the understanding 18th-century paints, and paint analysis in general, with this research that we do.”

Colonial Williamsburg researchers brought their new palette to Benjamin Moore Paints, which in May 2013 launched a new 144-color Benjamin Moore Williamsburg Color Collection. Colonial Williamsburg now is using those paints to help the historic homes tell their stories more accurately.

One of the things the researchers realized is that some of the greens and grays had to go. Those shades came about when the original color, Prussian blue, degraded.

And the bright whites of some buildings were historically inaccurate. Any true white was the result of whitewash. “White” paint was more cream-colored, and changed over time to yellow and khaki, Webster says.

The Thomas Everand House before the repainting (bottom) and after.

The Thomas Everand House as it was being repainted (top) and the finished look.

Also, in the early decades of restoration, historians assumed paints were used interchangeably indoors and outdoors. But analysis has found that only the most stable, durable paints, resistant to weather and sunlight, were used on building exteriors. Those are primarily earth pigments based in rust, lead and carbon. Exterior colors tended to be red-browns, yellows, whites, grays and creams.

The less stable Prussian blue has not been found on the exterior of any Williamsburg house, Webster says. In the 18th century, if you paint a house exterior Prussian blue, “within five years you’re going to have a green house and in 10 years you’re going to have a gray house.”

In addition to their laboratory findings, researchers perused advertisements in the Virginia Gazette, detailed painting contracts, descriptions of buildings and trade books with instructions for mixing the pigments imported from England.

According to Webster, the instructions were minimal: “Make it as you always do.” The craftsmen who mixed the paint no doubt knew what that meant, but it’s not helpful to posterity.

What Colors Mean

Paint was part of the public image of the 18th-century building owner. Webster says that home interiors were painted and wallpapered to show status in downstairs areas seen by the public. Climb the stairs to the private areas such as the bedrooms, and the walls might have been whitewashed or painted with cheaper pigments. “It’s a completely different mentality,” he says.

The Moir House before the repainting (left) and after.

The Moir House before the repainting (left) and after.

With the new information on the original colors and comparative expense of the paints, CWF researchers re-evaluated the color choices that had been made decades before and began to correct them.

Visitors can see examples of the stories that paint reveals by visiting the Moir House and the adjacent George Davenport House. The Moir House was built in the 1770s and valued at 555 pounds. The Davenport House was 50 years old at that time and in bad condition, valued at 50 pounds.

The Davenport House before (top) and after the repainting.

The Davenport House before (top) and after the repainting.

“The Moir is painted a more expensive and popular yellow, while the George Davenport is painted a dated, cheaper red-brown color,” Webster says.

Another change: Nicholson Store, which was painted reddish brown, has now been transformed to a yellow-cream color. “It made no sense being brown,” Webster says.

For Moir and Nicholson, “They’re using this color to tell their story: ‘I’m important and I have money.’”

Even though most of Colonial Williamsburg’s paint supplies came from the United Kingdom, the colony used paint very differently. “We’re much more vibrant than the UK,” Webster says.

Listen to “The Color of History” podcast


  1. Pat says

    I must admit that the color changes to the houses will take some time to get used to after seeing them a certain way for a number of years. I’m not really a fan of the monochromatic color schemes that I’ve seen pop up on a lot of the buildings lately. The cream on cream, white on white, etc for the body of the house and the shutters really doesn’t make sense to me. I know color was expensive back then and am finding it hard to believe that they wouldn’t have had more of a contrast. I just fear that it’s all going to be drab in the very near future which will be rather unfortunate.

    • Matt says

      Thank you for your comment. While the paint schemes might not fit our modern aesthetic, they are based on evidence from hundreds of 18th century buildings. What we have found is that exteriors tend to be functional in their paint schemes because of the durability of the different pigments and the expense of painting. The interiors tend to be the areas where the color range expands. Thank you for your interest.

  2. HelenMarie Marshall says

    About time chrm analyses were done. We quilters have known for years what you are just now learning. The color preferences were not full and dreary! Even our local historic home, Hope Lodge, had the paints analyzed and the woodwork in the public rooms as well as the main bedroom are done in fabulous Prussian blue. When you live by candle and oil lamp, any light source is a welcome addition. And of course Prussian blue was an expensive commodity.

    • Matt says

      Thank you for your comment. Colonial Williamsburg has been doing advanced analysis of paint since the 1980s. The current implementation is the result of over 30 years of modern analysis. With over 600 structures containing varying levels of paint evidence we needed to be sure we knew as much as possible before implementation of the exterior paint schemes occurred. There were many factors we had to consider, even the expense of pigments that you reference. Prussian blue is very expensive in the first half of the 18th century, but once the chemical process of making the pigment was fine tuned, it became more affordable in the second half of the 18th century. So depending on the time period you are looking at, the same pigment can tell different stories. We appreciate your interest and hope you enjoy the new colors.

  3. Glenn says

    This is another reason why Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the premier restoration and historic organization in the country! I’m sure other organizations are watching and hopefully following your lead.

  4. Deborah Babb says

    Very interesting. It’s been a couple of years since we visited Williamsburg. We’ll have to get back and check out the new colors!

  5. Lane Rose says

    Thank you for the before-and-after photos. I hope more will be published soon – AND I hope we will be able to see them in person soon. It would be nice to publish an entire brochure/flier with the before-afters. Thanks again.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *