While doing an 18th century demonstration recently, several people asked how the walls in the fort were painted.  That seems a reasonable question so that is the topic of today’s post. 

Ft. Toulouse

There were multiple reasons for whitewashing, or lime-washing interior walls, the primary one being to lighten the room making it easier to see in the wee small hours.  By lightening an interior, the structure appeared larger and roomier than when dark and drab. 

Whitewash was thought to deter vermin of various sorts, another important consideration, for even before the nature of common germs was known, some found the presence of roaches, flies, ants, mice, and other pests annoying. 

Whitewashing the outside of a building or fence sealed the wood and protected it from the elements.  Even stone walls and structures were thought to benefit from being whitewashed as it sealed minute cracks and crevices and protected them from moisture and temperature extremes. Reducing the amount of moisture on the stones helped eliminate mildew and musty odor.  – Eberlein, Harold Donaldson.  The Architecture of Colonial America.  1915.  Boston.

Ft. Toulouse, 2011


There were those who thought whitewashing a building or roof rendered it incombustible, a theory first put forth in the medieval era when wooden houses were ordered to be whitewashed in an effort to prevent the grand fires that often destroyed major portions of European cities.  – The Cultivator.  Vol. 2.  – New York State Agricultural Society. 

The ingredients in whitewash changed little through the 19th century, the common mixture being unslacked lime and water with salt added to keep the material from peeling off of the painted surfaces.  The whitewash was sometimes thinned with milk, but whitewash differed from milk paint.  Sizing could be used instead of salt to render the whitewash impervious to water, and later in the 19th century white vitriol (sulfate of zinc) was used.  – Mechanics Magazine.  Vol. 6.  Oct. 7, 1826. 

To clean and brighten interior walls or ceilings that had been blackened by smoke from a fireplace, multiple books recommended adding a little indigo squeezed through a bag to the mixture.

My distinguised visitors, Michael & Annabelle

Various materials were added to whitewash to add color, such as Prussian blue, iron oxide, animal blood, yellow ochre, sienna, chrome yellow, verdigris, vermilion, Venetian red, etc.  – Lea, Elizabeth E.  Domestic Cookery, Useful Receipts, and Hints to Young Housekeepers.  1859.  Baltimore.  & Tegg, Thomas.  Tegg’s Handbook for Emigrants.  1839.  London.

To Mix Whitewash.  Pour a kettle of boiling water on a peck of unslacked lime; put in 2 lbs. whiting*, and half a pint of salt; when all are mixed together put in ½ ounce of Prussian blue, finely powdered; add water to make it a proper thickness to put on a wall. 

Records state that as early as the thirteenth century the practice of whitewashing buildings was common, even the interiors of churches were whitewashed.  Extant notes from Henry VIII instruct whitewashing the Norman Chapel in the Tower and many other areas.  Westminster Hall was whitewashed for the coronation of Edward I.  – Notes and Queries.  March 25, 1854. & Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle Upon Tyne.  & Archaeologia Aeliana, or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity. 

Whitewash was common by 1715 in the U.S. when William Barry documented the practice of whitewashing interiors by recording an agreement between a workman and a church in which the former was to whitewash the ceiling and walls of a meeting house in Farmingham, Mass.  – Barry, William.  A History of Farmingham, Massachusetts:  Including the Plantation from 1640 to the Present Time.  1847.  Boston.

Whitewashed walls were often stenciled in distemper paint in Colonial America.  Ann Eckert Brown wrote that a common color scheme was white, black, and red with the black and red applied over the whitewashed surfaces.  – Brown, Ann Eckert.  American Wall Stencilling, 1790-1840.  2003.  University Press of New England.

Durable Whitewash.  I am enabled to certify the efficacy of marine salt in fixing whitewash made of lime.  In the year 1795, when I was director of the naval artillery at the port of Toulon, I was commissioned to ascertain the utility of a method proposed by the master painter of that port, M. Maquilan, for whitewashing the ships between deck, and likewise their holds, in a durable manner, by means of lime.  Our report was in favour of this process, which consists in saturating water in which the lime is slacked with muriate of soda, (common salt.)  The whitewash produced by it is very permanent, does not crack, nor come off upon one’s hands or clothes.  The experiment was made only on wood.  It appears from M. St. Bernarde’s account, that it succeeded equally well on walls.  – Smith, Robert.  The Friend.  June 7, 1835. 

Men are men, and not all men of earlier centuries wanted to be bothered with something as mundane as whitewashing.  Lucky for them, the whitewasher usually made his rounds in the spring with his bucket and long-handled brush making his presence known to housewives by crying: 

“Y’ere’s the White Whitey-Wash!

Brown Whitey-Wash!

Yellow Whitey-Wash!

Green Whitey-Wash!

Wash. Wash!

I’m about.

Bib:   City Cries.  George S. Appleton, publisher.  1850.  NY.

The Southern Agriculturist and Register of Rural Affairs.  Vol. 10.  1837. 

Urban, Sylvanus.  The Gentleman’s Magazine:  Historical Chronicle.  June ©1810. 

 *  Whiting was ground up chalk