Historic paint colors: What color should you paint your house?

By: Matt Grocoff , Contributing Writer
In: Home Improvement Tips, Historic Preservation, House Styles

Historic ad for lead paint

History of paint

The first evidence of paint dates back almost 100,000. In 2011, archaeologists found an ochre based mixture that they believe could have been used as paint. Homo Sapiens were painting the caves at Lascaux, France with a combination of red or yellow ochre, hematite, manganese oxide, and charcoal. Until the Victorian Era, paint was still being mixed on-site with mostly natural pigments.

Not until 1866 did a couple guys named Henry Sherman and Edward Williams revolutionize house paint. They brought us the first pre-mixed paint that was ready to use straight from the can.

With the advent of chemical pigments, the Victorians proceeded to go nuts with color and began wild experimentation. As architectural styles changed through the decades, so did paint colors and styles.

Today, when owners want to repaint a historic house they have seemingly infinite choices of paint colors. With high-tech color matching, the possibilities are virtually endless. For those who choose to repaint using period accurate colors, most companies now offer lines of "heritage" or "historic" paint palettes. They offer paint chip collections to show which colors go with which. Matching trim, window, and field colors is made simple. Valspar has even partnered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to offer a palette of over "250 colors documented from historic places across the country and representing American colors from a variety of periods and styles."

Painted Ladies in San Francisco


Here are some common colors from different eras and places:

  • Georgian home colors: Golds, grays and browns
  • Geechee Blue (aka Porch Blue): Ever wonder why the ceilings of porches are so often colored blue? It's to keep the Haints away, of course. The Geechee and Guilah cultures of coastal southern U.S. believed that evil spirits could be fooled into thinking the the blue was water or sky, which would keep the spirits away. These descendants of slaves used indigo, lime, and buttermilk to create this ethereal blue pigment.
  • Victorian home colors: Combos of reds and greens as well as golds and purples
  • Queen Anne home colors: These are the "Painted Ladies" where almost anything goes anda variety of paint combinations are used. In the 1960s in San Francisco, people began painting these homes in even wider varieties of colors, reflecting the psychedelic tones of the period.
  • Arts & Crafts home colors: Natural earth tones, reddish browns (rust), greens, yellows, and blues
  • Art Deco home colors: California and Florida popularized this style and used vibrant tropical colors influenced by Cuban and Caribbean islands. Bright pinks, blues, greens, and yellows.

Is oil- or water-based paint better?

Water based paint is much safer for you and the environment. It's durable, easier to use, easier to clean, and there are many great non-toxic, non-petroleum choices.