Early American Houses: Why so Dark?

Paul Revere’s House, Boston (built ca. 1680, a full 90 years before Revere bought it!)

Historic colors can be contentious. One of the biggest misnomers about historic preservation regulation is that homeowners will be restricted in paint color. While this is true in some places via local ordinances, it is not true for National Register properties or many local historic districts (including those in Marblehead, MA, and Oak Park, IL). After all, repainting happens often and is easy to change without damaging the house! However, many people own historic homes because they appreciate the history and they are often interested in using historically appropriate colors.

I was visiting Massachusetts last weekend and the number of historic houses that were dark brown caught my eye. Of course there’s the Paul Revere House in Boston (photo above), but I spotted a number of these houses in Salem, as well. What gives? As it turns out, not only were paint colors limited in early America, but many houses were left unpainted. The wood became a dark, weathered brown. Of course, there is a reason we paint wood–protection from the elements–so today, this is often represented by a dark brown paint color.

When used, exterior paints in the 1700s were most commonly a yellow ochre or iron oxide (red) mixed with white lead and linseed oil. Technology and materials limited the colors available and led to regional variations.

Salem, MA

Sources and Further Reading:

Firstly, I have to credit all of you for pointing this out to me! Specifically this Instagram, which led to a discussion about the dark color choices. Learning surprising new things from my readers/followers is my #1 favorite thing about blogging. Thanks!!

Ok, I did a deep dive on this because it is fascinating. But here’s a few interesting reads on paint color:

Painting Your Historic House, a Guide to Color and Color Schemes, via Historic Ipswich

Authentic Colonial Colors, via Old House

New England Historic Paint Colors, via Yankee

Also, not paint colors, but if you’re interested in New England architecture I enjoyed this article: Guide to Colonial American House Styles From 1600 to 1800, Architecture Before the American Revolution, via ThoughtCo.

Salem, MA
Salem, MA

7 thoughts on “Early American Houses: Why so Dark?

  1. I know you tend to focus just on websites in your Sources and Further Reading section, but there are informative books and articles that go far more in-depth on the subject. The work of Roger W. Moss is of particular interest, especially his landmark book Paint in America: The Color of Historic Buildings. While I particularly dislike the current fad of painting everything gray, I learned from the article “Black Belt Elegance: Late Antebellum Alabama Parlors” by Lee W. Rahe published in the Winter 1997, Issue 43 of Alabama Heritage magazine, specifically the section “A Rare View of a Nineteenth-Century Parlor,” that ours is not the first era to intentionally fall under a cloud of gray paint, as Greek Revival parlors often were painted gray, though their gray was a lighter, more naturalistic stone color. One can spend numerous hours on JSTOR or in a research library reading other articles on architectural color in previous eras of America’s architectural history.


    1. The all gray (and white) trend, particularly when done on previously unpainted brick, is definitely cringe-worthy! However, that’s interesting that this isn’t the first gray phase. JSTOR is the best. Thanks for these details!


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