Restorers Are Surpised by Color of Old Paints

News presents briefs about current and forthcoming programs, events, exhibits and activities of historical and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

Even the paint in old houses surrenders mysteries to the historical researcher if he has the patience to unfold them.

The refurbishing of an early nineteenth century farm house at the Pennsylvania Farm Museum at Landis Valley, near Lancaster, recently yielded information on old paint for the museum staff. Their project involved an eight-­room farm house of brick and stone construction, designated the 1815 House, refurbished about ten years after a major restoration done under a contract.

The 1815 House – the date designation might not be exact – is believed to have been originally the home of Jacob Landis, the “Schmidt Jake” or “Smith Jake” (black­smith) in the valley. He was born in the latter 1700’s and died in 1848. However, he was not a direct antecedent of Henry and George Landis, the brothers who founded the museum in 1925.

At the beginning of the project, the staff realized that the earlier restoration had made no attempt to duplicate the colors of the original painting in the interior of the approximately 160-year-old dwelling. In the refurbishing, the staff wanted to follow the current restoration philoso­phy of duplicating the original painting scheme, according to Carroll J. Hopf, museum director.

The Farm Museum staff analyzed the walls and wood­work for evidence of early pigment. Repainting was to be done according to findings. Hopf reports that it was discovered that the whitewashed walls were originally tinted and that the woodwork was painted a darker shade. Colors varied from room to room.

Hopf said the staff was amazed at finding such bright colors were used in this period. He observed that “we tend to forget that years of grime, smoke and dirt dull colors.”

In the family or larger room of the 1815 House, the whitewashed walls had a gray tint. He speculates that this may have been achieved by adding lampblack to the whitewash mixture. The woodwork was a grayish green.

The parlor’s walls are creamy white and the woodwork is painted a light brown or sand color. Both umber of Sienna, raw or burnt, could have been used by the profes­sional painters to achieve shades of brown.

The downstairs bedroom woodwork was painted a rich Prussian blue. The kitchen walls and woodwork were painted the same hue, a deep orange brown known as Spanish brown, probably made from pigment achieved from refined earth. As was apparently the custom of the day, the kitchen windows were painted white.

The old-timers had a “sensitivity for color,” the museum director concludes from his research. He also describes the period in which the house was built as one of the most pleasant in the nation’s history. The period was perhaps one of the most peaceful and productive that the rural people of America had known.

Admitting the Spanish-brown kitchen walls might be first appear too hot for a kitchen, he finds it a warm color in the best sense and one that grows on a person as he observes the house’s total color scheme.

Hopf contends that the entire field of color, particularly of whitewash, offers great opportunity for interesting research.

In building his home, the blacksmith evidently called on the assistance of other craftsmen. The woodwork, such as the moulding around doors, suggests this. It was done with a moulding plane in the hands of someone who knew how to use this tool, which usually was found in the more complete set of tools used by the more sophisticated crafts­man. The blacksmith might have traded services with a skilled carpenter. The person doing the painting and car­pentry could have been one and the same, being frequently the practice in that period.

While building his home well, the blacksmith also gives some hints of the frugality for which the early Pennsylvania Germans were known. Brick construction was preferred over stone and was considered more fashionable, Hopf points out. In the rear wall of the house, where it was not so noticeable, stone was used. Hopf speculates that it came from an earlier building on or near the site, or at least was close at hand.

At some stage of the house’s life, the stone was covered with lime mortar and scored to resemble brick; however, during the major restoration work a decade ago, the wall was restored to its basic construction. The better brick and workmanship are evident in the front walls and front corners of the blacksmith’s house.

The 1815 House is the centerpiece for an interpretation of farm and rural life in the 1815-1855 period. Colonial and Victorian are the other two periods interpreted at the Farm Museum complex consisting of forty-four buildings occupying approximately one hundred acres. Half the buildings are open to the public.

The museum director concedes that the 1815 House may suffer a fault of most restoration in that it probably is better furnished than originally, but no inventory of these furnishings has been located. Curtains hang only in the best room or parlor “for fancy” and the bedroom for privacy. Shutters were favored in the past over curtains to reduce drafts. Sunshine with its warmth and cheerfulness was welcomed prior to central heating. Rugs also are found in only the parlor and bedroom. They are hooked, of a type made by the housewife from wool sheared, spun and woven in the community.

A multiple-plate stove is used in the kitchen for both cooking and heating. The stove indicates, for example, a progression from the open-hearth cooking in the Settler’s Cabin in the Colonial Period interpretation.

In its do-it-yourself refurbishing effort, the staff expects soon to begin work on another interesting museum house, the “Grossmutte House,” built to provide comfortable private living quarters for the widowed mother of the son who inherited the old farmstead.

Staff members are looking forward to the same reward­ing detective work in finding the original paint scheme, which they intend to duplicate in this interesting old house.

The staff’s painstaking work on the 1815 House may be observed on a visit to the Pennsylvania Farm Museum, off Rt. 272 (Oregon Pike) just north of Lancaster. The hours are 9 A.M. to 4:30 P.M. weekdays and 12:30 to 4:30 P.M. Sundays.