Sunday, August 6, 2017

Paint in the Schuyler Mansion: 18th Century Paint

By Jessie Serfilippi

A copy of Schuyler's paint receipt
Painting the interior of a house in the 18th century greatly differed from modern paint methods. In the 18th century, paint had to be mixed specifically for each job and used quickly so it wouldn’t develop a skim on top. Paint also came in powdered form, allowing it to be mixed at the convenience of the user. Surprisingly, what these powders were made of not only determined the cost of the paint, but also made certain paint colors into status symbols. Because of this, the wealthy social elite of the colonial era used paint to further display their wealth. As a man of great wealth, Philip Schuyler may have sought to show off his status through paint colors, too.

One of the few paint-related receipts from the early days of the Schuyler Mansion details the colors, form, quantity, and prices for a variety of paints Schuyler purchased. According to this receipt, he bought four bags of white paint “Ground in Oil,” two bags of “Brown paint Ground in oil,” 20 bags of “Umber” paint, two bags of lamp black paint, and three ounces of Prussian Blue.

[Editor's Note: This paragraph has become subject to scrutiny. As we learned from historians who focus in pigments and decorative arts, milk paint is not made or used in the 18th-Century the way the initial research for this article turned over. We here at Schuyler Mansion believe in learning from mistakes and understand the frustration of seeing historical myths perpetuated, so want to make you aware of the mistake, but will allow the author to do her own research and make her own corrections when that becomes possible.] While Schuyler elects to use an oil base, there were two main options of the day: oil and milk. Oil paint was made from three main ingredients—linseed oil, the ground-up pigment, and turpentine. Milk paint, which produced rich, lasting colors, was made of milk, lime, and whichever minerals were used to create the pigment. Schuyler seemed to prefer painting with an oil base, as he purchased 20 gallons of oil with the paint.

Out of the four paints purchased, the easiest pigment to make was brown. This was made using whichever minerals were available locally. Most commonly, dirt was used to achieve what was sometimes referred to as Spanish Brown. This paint was commonly used as a primer, so its exact color—which varied widely, from red, to orange, to brown—didn’t matter.

White paint, according to Colonial Williamsburg’s Making History, was not exactly white. It was rather a creamy off-white that sometimes faded to khaki over time. This is because white paint is made from either chalk or lime, which would be available to colonials in nearby quarries. Because the pigment is created through these minerals, a pure white color could only be achieved through white washing. Whether or not Schuyler white-washed after painting anything white is currently unknown.

Lamp black paint, which Schuyler purchased two bags of, was created with either soot from oil lamps or burnt vegetable oil mixed with the base, which was oil in this case. These common resources would make is fairly cheap to produce, much like the brown paint.

Schuyler also purchased umber paint. This is a shade of brown named for the clay material from which it’s derived. The clay is typically mined in Italy or Cyprus, meaning the import value alone likely caused it to be more expensive than the other shade of brown.

The most expensive paint color of all was Prussian blue, of which Schuyler purchased only three ounces. Those three ounces cost 1 pound, 1 shilling, while two bags of brown paint cost him one pound, twelve pence. Prussian blue paint was the first artificially manufactured paint. It was discovered through experimentation with the oxidation of iron by a German man named Diesbach. Not only did it become popular in the centuries following its discovery, but it was also expensive, making it a status symbol. George Washington put it in his home. Did Philip Schuyler, as well? Discover the answer in the next blog post in this series, which will focus on restoring the paint in the Schuyler Mansion!

Prussian Blue at George Washington's Mount Vernon.


  1. A couple of points - paint ground in oil was not sold in bags, but in kegs. Also, there are great misconceptions about 'milk paint'and these were aired by Susan Buck over twenty years ago and by others previously.

  2. Hi Mr. Baty. The first image is a transcription of Philip Schuyler's receipt for the paint, which shows he is purchasing the paint in "bags". The original receipt, I believe is in the New York Public Library (I will confirm with the staff member who wrote the article). While Schuyler is ultimately probably taking the paint home in barrels or kegs, this receipt shows that this particular paint grinder is charging Schuyler for the pigments and oil separately. Essentially it is an itemized receipt. We will look into the "milk paint". The articles that appear on this blog are one of the ways our interpreters research and learn about the family and the home they are interpreting, so often when one interpreter covers a topic, it is something the rest of us are completely unfamiliar. We appreciate the historical dialogue with readers that get us to look deeper into a topic.

  3. Thank you. Although not meant as an advertisement, you can read the brief chapter that I have written on 'Milk Paint' here - I hope that it debunks the myth.

    1. Thanks! We will definitely check it out! Perhaps we can work this information into an article for our "Mansion Mythbusters" series.