For years, many historians assumed that historic house colors were serious and subdued—after all, those were the shades that revealed themselves when they scraped paint samples from old surfaces. However, modern paint research has toppled that theory and shown us that historic paints were much more vibrant before they faded with time. With our guide to period-appropriate paints, you can uncover the perfect color match and bring those vivid hues to life in your own old house.
Selecting paint colors is often one of the very first projects new homeowners take on. For historic homeowners, the decision is often more complex than taking a quick trip to the paint store. It’s often important to know what the original exterior and interior colors coated the wall. Architectural historians routinely research and document this type of information to provide owners with a greater understanding of the design tastes of particular periods.
Brands of House Paints
Valspar has teamed up with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to create more than 250 historically accurate colors that bring to life palettes from different National Trust properties, like the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C., or upstate New York’s Lyndhurst Mansion.
From Colonial to Victorian, Arts & Crafts to suburban modern, Sherwin-Williams offers a paint palette for nearly every incarnation of American architectural style. With both interior and exterior colors—like the down-to-earth Roycroft Adobe and the delicate Queen Anne Lilac—the palettes provide period-appropriate inspiration for wall, trim, and accent colors.
The company’s web site provides basic background information on a range of architectural styles, beginning with Cape Cod homes (1600-1955) and ending with Contemporary (1965-present), and gives a sample color palette for each one.
Pratt & Lambert
Developed in conjunction with the Williamsburg Program, Pratt & Lambert’s Williamsburg Palette replicates 184 of the colors—from soft grays to grassy greens—discovered over decades of meticulous research on Colonial Williamsburg’s 500 historic buildings.
Developed in conjunction with Historic New England, and spanning three centuries’ worth of paint colors, California Paints’ Historic Colors of America palette reflects the evolution of color in American architecture, from the bold earth tones of early farmhouses to the more brilliant jewel tones that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries. The colors were collected from hundreds of samples taken from historic properties and objects, and for easy use, the web site groups shades both by hue and architectural style.
Finnaren & Haley
In Peter Cooper’s 1720 painting of Philadelphia, only six of the 93 Colonial buildings were painted white. Today, those proud reds and blues can be replicated with Authentic Colors of Historic Philadelphia, a palette offered by Finnaren & Haley. Paint sleuths analyzed the underlying layers of paint collected from historic surfaces in Philadelphia, revealing a wealth of hues that have been certified by the National Park Service.
Historic Paint Formulas
The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Co.
Long before the advent of the modern paint store, cave painters hand-mixed their own paints from raw materials like curdled milk, charcoal, and mineral ores. Today, the Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Co. carries on this age-old practice with organic paints made from lime, natural pigments, and casein (a protein found in milk). Old-Fashioned Milk Paint is available in 20 colors, or as a base with no pigment for custom-blending.
The Real Milk Paint Co.
If you can’t find the color you’re looking for from a traditional paint manufacturer, try mixing your own. The Real Milk Paint Co. offers a powdered milk paint formula consisting of lime, pigment, and purified casein—just add water, and you’re ready to paint. Colors are available in traditional and historic blends, or you can achieve your desired shade by adding varying amounts of white pigment.
Olde Century Colors
Ground pigments and a small-batch process lend Olde Century Colors’ paints their authenticity. As the paint dries, subtle brush strokes remain visible in the film, a hallmark of traditional paint produced in handcrafted batches in the 19th century. Fourteen of Olde Century’s 36 colors, including Tinderbox Brown and Goldenrod Yellow, are designated for bungalow, Craftsman, and Prairie-style homes.
Fine Paints of Europe
Based on formulas developed by Dutch paintmakers in the 1800s, Fine Paints of Europe evolved from owner John Lahey’s search for a high-quality coating for the walls of his 18th-century home. After marveling at the rich paints used on the walls of historic homes in Europe, he set out to replicate the age-old combination of pure oils and pigments. Today, the company offers a variety of paints (including an environmentally friendly water-based line) in historic colors like those in the Mount Vernon Estate of Colours Collection.
Old Village Paint
Since 1816, the experts at fifth-generation Old Village Paint have crafted formulas to withstand the test of time, making their paint the product of choice at historic sites like Colonial Williamsburg and the Law Library of Congress. Whether latex, buttermilk, or oil-based, all of their paints are produced with natural earth pigments and are perfect for Colonial, Federal, or Victorian homes.