Purple? Pink? Yellow? Painting your old house

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Home Improvement Tips, Old House History, Historic Preservation

You’ve polished those old hardwood floors, painstakingly restored the original windows and scoured antique shops for the perfect furnishings. Your old house might be as historically accurate as you can make it on the inside, but what about the outside?

When it’s time to upgrade the exterior of a historic home, many homeowners will go with vinyl siding colors and styles that are meant to mimic the look of old clapboard. Manufacturers can do a fine job of making their vinyl siding look as though it belongs in a historic district, and in many cases even historic commissions are giving the enthusiastic go-ahead for vinyl siding use.

Historically accurate paint. Image credit: Victor Bloomfield

But what if you have an old house that features original clapboard or other original exterior cladding? It is a shame to get rid of that or cover it over with something modern. In that case, painting your house might be the way to go.

Choosing the proper historical paint colors

Early photographs can be the best way to determine the proper colors for your historic home. Even black and white photographs can lend a clue as to the color scheme. Look for photographs through your local library, historical society or former residents of the home. If you don’t have any luck finding photos of your house, look for photographs of your neighbors’ properties–your home could be in the background.

It is also a good idea to look at historical information on your particular neighborhood or street. In some cases, houses truly stood out with unique paint jobs, and that might have been mentioned in historical documents, such as old newspapers.

If you can find an area of the house that seems to have original paint, that can help as well. Though paint chips like this will likely be faded by the elements, a professional well-versed in historic paints might be able to analyze it to determine the original color.

Keep your eyes peeled when looking for antiques, too. Paint color cards were presented to homeowners as early as the 1840’s, and many of them have wound up in the dusty shelves of antique shops. Though those samples might not be the color your old house once was, they can serve as inspiration for a new paint job.

Creating your own color scheme

In some cases, finding the original paint colors might be impossible. That’s when you turn to the popular colors of the day. For instance, bright colors like yellow and orange were popular in the South, while darker hues of red, indigo and brown were more popular in New England states. Paints for homes built before the early 1900’s had natural pigments; synthetic pigments didn’t come along until well after that.

Those natural pigments showed up often in Colonial style homes, including indigo and deep red. Federal style homes had more muted colors, such as cream, pumpkin, or light blue. Greek Revival homes were often painted white or cream with a few accents in deep colors. The palette really exploded with Victorian homes, which were painted in every color of the rainbow. Colonial Revival homes went back to the darker colors, including various shades of blue and gray.

Before you embark on that important paint job, do plenty of research. Your color scheme should add to the neighborhood ambiance and curb appeal while staying true to the home’s unique history.