What’s that smell? If you’ve visited the newly erected Market House or Anderson’s Blacksmith Shop and Public Armoury, you may have noticed something in the air after the buildings were painted. The odor of chicory? A nearby BBQ? Believe it or not, it’s paint! Tar paint, to be exact.
That’s right. The distinct odor is the scent of tar—an inexpensive, waterproof coating that was used extensively in Virginia during the Colonial period. This smell would have been pervasive throughout Williamsburg in the 18th century.
What is tar paint? Tar and pitch were some of the earliest protective coatings used to preserve woodwork in houses, public buildings, and ships and date back to ancient times. Both materials are by-products of the destructive distillation (heating) of softwoods like pine, and birch bark. Both have excellent water-repellent properties which made them very appropriate and economical coating alternatives in the American Colonies, where pine forests were extensive.
There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of primary references that refer to the use of tar on buildings in Virginia. Here are just a few:
“tarr ye roofes of ye said houses and porch (Lancaster Co.)
“tarring the courthouse and prison” (King George Co.)
“tar the new church at Poplar Spring” (Gloucester Co.)
In 1704, a fascinating report on tar production in Virginia was written by E. Jenings for the Royal Commissioners in Great Britain:
“I believe there is Annually made in Virginia near 3,000 barells of Tarr in Princess Ann County wch containes…50,000 acres of low Pine Land, not Agreable for tobacco…What Tarr now made, is of the Knotts and Pieces of fallen Trees…Some is made use of by the Inhabitants for their houses, Boats & c. Part disposed of to the Masters of Ships for their Use, And part Transported to Barbadoes, Jamaica & Seward Islands.”
Tar was not always used by itself. It could be mixed with pigments and/or oils to protect and also enliven surfaces with color. One such example can be found in a written agreement for the painting of the St. George Tucker House in Williamsburg, dated August 30, 1798:
“The top of the Kitchen, and of the shed leading down from the Cellar to the Kitchen yard, are to be painted with Spanish Brown, mixed with Tar, & fish oil, & well boiled together.”
Tar paint must be applied warm. The heat thins the tar, which is immediately soaked up by rougher hewn surfaces such as riven clapboards and shingles. In fact, this is how the Market House roof and the Anderson Armoury kitchen were painted! That deep red color you see is a mixture of tar, oil, and red ochre pigments.
In our Materials Analysis Laboratory, tar paints are evasive (this seems to be a function of age), but they can sometimes be identified using cross-section microscopy and/or Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR). So far, tar paints have been positively identified on exterior weatherboards at the John Blair House and the Thomas Everard Kitchen. It is likely that this versatile coating was used on many more Williamsburg buildings, but over time this thin layer became worn and was painted over with more permanent oil-based paints, obscuring the earlier tar evidence.
To me, tar is the unsung hero of historic architectural coatings. Our forefathers were certainly aware of this versatile material, and put it to good use. Some of our historic buildings might not be here today if not for the preservative effects of tar! So the next time you are in the Historic Area, please visit the Market House and the Anderson Armoury to see (and smell!), this historically accurate coating!
Blogger: Kirsten Moffitt
Kirsten received her M.S. from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, where she specialized in the conservation and analysis of painted surfaces. As Colonial Williamsburg’s Materials Analyst and Associate Conservator, Kirsten analyzes all types of collection materials including metals, ceramics, textiles, furniture and house paints in the Foundation’s newly established Materials Analysis Laboratory. She loves that her job is a combination of art history, chemistry, and forensics. Kirsten truly loves watching paint dry, and her analytical work was a big contribution to Benjamin Moore’s Williamsburg Collection line.
Kirsten loves reading, traveling, and walking her black lab, Ebbie, around the Historic Area.