Paint Without Pain
IN EARLY AMERICA, PAINT WAS EXPENSIVE, PERISHABLE, AND TEMPERAMENTAL, AND YOU HAD TO MAKE IT YOURSELF. HENRY SHERWIN TURNED IT INTO THE DURABLE MANUFACTURED COMMODITY IT IS TODAY.
UNTIL THE MIDDLE OF THE NINETEENTH century, most Americans had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward paint. Wood was plentiful and cheap, especially on the frontier; in fact, most settlers had to chop down trees to clear their land. Eager to start farming, they used the wood to build their cabins and outbuildings as quickly and cheaply as possible. Painting the buildings might beautify them and extend their lifespans, but pioneers had more urgent concerns, like survival. Moreover, painting was an expensive and timeconsuming job that often produced unsatisfactory results. Colonists who wished to protect wooden exterior walls could try their luck with a variety of oils and stains.
Until well into the nineteenth century, Americans couldn’t just run down to the hardware store to buy a can of paint. They had to purchase the ingredients separately—which could be quite expensive, because many of them had to be imported—and then mix the paint themselves. Although recipes and mixing guides were available, it wasn’t always easy to get the desired color. Moreover, the paint would have so little opacity that five or more coats were needed to cover a wall. So it’s not surprising that paint did not become commonplace in and on American homes until long after independence. Painting was generally reserved for churches, public buildings, and the houses of the wealthy.
Basically, a paint consists of a pigment or pigments (to lend color and opacity), a binder (to dissolve the pigment and solidify into a film), and a solvent (to make the paint spread in a thin layer). The latter two together are called the vehicle. One or more additives, such as a drier, may also be included. The first pigments were natural ones found in the earth; reddish-brown iron oxide (rust) was the most popular. To supply the demand for these minerals, ancient societies initially depended on surface deposits but eventually began to mine them. Other natural pigments included iron carbonates for yellow and brown, soot or pyrolusite for black, and manganese dioxide for purple. The earliest paints were used for decorating skin, rocks, and cave walls. Vehicles included animal and vegetable oils, blood, egg white, honey, tree sap, and urine. The paint was sometimes applied over a base of wet plaster.
Paint technology developed alongside that of ceramics. One of the first major advances occurred when the ancient Egyptians created artificial blue and green pigments by baking and pulverizing copper-based pottery glazes. Besides coloring paint, these pigments were sometimes used as cosmetics. The Egyptians also used natural deposits of lead carbonate, or white lead. The Greeks and Romans learned to manufacture white lead using vinegar, the strongest acid available in ancient times. This technology is described in the works of Theophrastus and Pliny.
Since white paint could be tinted to produce a rainbow of colors while providing excellent opacity, its manufacture was a major advance. In addition to being a pigment, white lead made the vehicle dry faster, and as it aged, it chalked instead of cracking. White lead remained a mainstay of paint manufacture until very recent times. In the early Christian era, Rhodes was the center of white-lead manufacture. By the thirteenth century it was being produced in several European cities, with Venice eventually becoming most prominent. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Netherlands came to dominate the market.
The American colonies imported white lead, chiefly from Britain, but the demand was small at first. In New England the Puritans, with their emphasis on austerity, discouraged house painting along with fancy clothing and other frivolities. Even churches went unpainted in the early days. In 1639 the Reverend Thomas Allen of Charlestown, Massachusetts, was criticized by local authorities because the interior of his house was painted. He redeemed himself by showing that the painting had been done by the previous owner. A comprehensive list of craftsmen in the colony of Massachusetts from the year 1670 contains no painters, and not until the early 1700s did painting supplies begin to be sold. Even so, house painting remained rare in Massachusetts well into the eighteenth century. (The shipbuilding and carriagemaking industries did consume moderate amounts of paint.)
Other colonies were less strict. In New York, originally settled by the paint-loving Dutch, whitewashed walls and painted woodwork were common by the 1700s. Painting was widespread enough in America that in the 1760s, when the cash-strapped British government needed to raise money from its colonists, it placed a tax on white lead, red lead (a lead oxide), and pigments along with paper, glass, sugar, and, most infamously, tea.
During and after the Revolution, Americans tried to reduce their dependence on imports by developing domestic industries, including supplies for painting. In 1804 Samuel Wetherill of Philadelphia, along with his son of the same name, built a factory to produce white lead. Wetherill had always been patriotic; during the Revolution he had founded a denomination called the Free (or Fighting) Quakers, who put aside their nonviolent principles to bear arms for the colonists.
The Wetherills’ factory was soon destroyed by fire, which appeared to be arson. Suspicion fell on a newly hired worker who had recently left England and was thought to be an agent for a foreign white-lead manufacturer. Although arson was never proved, the Wetherills left the business. Three other Philadelphia firms started manufacturing white lead, however, and in 1809 the Wetherills joined them.
The following year they built a huge factory to make red and white leads (which were also used in glass manufacture), igniting a price war with British manufacturers. The Wetherills might have gone out of business if not for the War of 1812, which removed foreign competitors from the American market. Business improved, and the Wetherills added three more pigments to their output: litharge (yellow lead oxide), mineral orange (roasted white lead), and chrome yellow (lead chromate). Successive generations of Wetherills operated the business until 1933, when it was sold to the National Lead Company.
Surviving descriptions of the Wetherills’ process for making white lead give a fascinating glimpse of an early American industry. The first step was to heat pig lead in a large furnace to its melting point of 622 degrees Fahrenheit. When the metal liquefied, workers lined up in front of the furnace. In one hand, each man held a wooden paddle, approximately three feet long and five inches wide, with raised edges. In the other hand, he held a ladle to scoop up the molten metal. After pouring metal over his paddle, he waited for it to form a thin sheet, approximately a fiftieth of an inch thick. This took less than a minute. Then he emptied that sheet onto a counter and returned to the furnace for another scoop. The Wetherills believed this method was the most efficient because the lead solidified in thin sheets and did not have to be mechanically flattened.
The lead sheets were rolled in loose coils and placed in specially designed earthen pots, each divided into an upper and a lower chamber by means of ledges projecting from the side. The lead went in the upper chamber, and the lower chamber was filled with vinegar. The pots were then carried to a storage area, where horse manure was packed around them and they were stacked several layers high. As the manure decomposed, it released heat, causing the vinegar to evaporate and condense on the coils. The manure also emitted carbon dioxide, which interacted with the vinegar on the lead surface to produce first an acetate and then a carbonate. (Strictly speaking, white lead is not pure lead carbonate but a mixed compound of two parts lead carbonate and one part lead hydroxide.)
When the lead had corroded to the point where it was ready to crumble, the pots were taken from storage and the lead was removed. The fine particles were removed from the coarse ones, which were mixed with water and ground in a stone mill. Successive washings separated the remaining coarse particles, which were ground again. When this procedure, called levigation, was complete, the powdered white lead was dried in a kiln. Finally, the dry powder was pulverized in a stone mill.
The Wetherills’ method, a variation on the so-called Dutch process (which mav actually be Italian in origin), remained unchanged for decades, although they experimented with substitutes for manure. In the 1870s fermenting tanbark (bark from various trees that yielded tannic acid for processing leather) replaced the manure, a modification that had been patented in Britain in 1781. In 1885 William Wetherill received a patent for using “ground or fibrous spent licorice root” either in lieu of or in combination with tanbark. When manure was used, corrosion could be completed in as little as two weeks, but repeated levigation was needed. With tanbark alone or in combination with licorice root, the corroding process took up to three months, but less grinding was required. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, faster methods were developed that used lead powder instead of thin sheets.
The Wetherills sold their white lead as a paste, which they produced by adding linseed oil during the final grinding. Early pigment and paint makers could choose from a variety of vehicles, including poppyseed oil, walnut oil, hemp oil (extracted from the seeds of the marijuana plant), spirit varnish, and copal varnish, but linseed oil was by far the most popular. Linseed oil readily absorbs oxygen, especially when spread in a thin film. As it does so, it turns into a tough, elastic substance called linoxyn, which adheres easily to smooth surfaces and penetrates deeply into porous surfaces, like wood.
Linseed oil can be produced from flaxseeds by crushing them in a press. (The fibers of the flax plant are used to make linen, which is why the seeds are also called linseeds. And since the hulls of the seeds can be eaten by people or animals, the flax plant supplies important raw materials for the textile, chemical, and agricultural industries.) Linseed oil was used in paint at an early date, possibly by the Egyptians, who had both flaxseeds and oil presses. In Europe, its use began during the Renaissance in Flanders, from which it spread first to Italy and then to other parts of the continent. By the eighteenth century it had become the most common paint vehicle.
In the American colonies, flax cultivation caught on rapidly, and soon there was a surplus of the seeds. In 1715 a flaxseed mill was opened in New York; one was started in Connecticut three years later. Most of the early linseed-oil mills were powered by water or cattle, but windmills were sometimes used in New York. By the mid-1830s the demand for linseed oil had grown so great that it was necessary to import flaxseed. Settlement of the prairies opened new lands to flax cultivation, but demand continued to outstrip the domestic supply.
Despite all this industrialization, paint still had to be handmixed, generally in small quantities, shortly before it was used. Hezekiah Reynolds’ Directions for House and Ship Painting (1812) gives an idea of what the antebellum handyman faced when preparing for a painting job. To make exterior paint, the first step was to boil one pound of red lead and four gallons of linseed oil in a brass or copper kettle. The mixture was to be simmered until red froth stopped rising to the top. Boiling and clarifying the oil in this way made it dry faster than untreated linseed oil. The red lead was not used as a pigment but rather to help remove impurities.
Next the painter needed a smooth iron kettle of “middling size” and an iron ball weighing 18 to 24 pounds. Four to six pounds of dry pigment went into the kettle to be pulverized with the ball, which was hung by a rope or chain. This step was important, because the pigment does not dissolve in the oil but forms a suspension. The smaller the particle size, the more intense the color will be and the longer the suspension will last before starting to separate.
When the pigment was ground to a fine powder, the painter added his boiled and clarified oil until the ball could “move easy and free.” Reynolds’s kettle-and-ball arrangement was ingenious, but grinding with two stones was more common for preparing small batches. The process could be simplified by buying pigment in paste form, but some such pigments tended to form clumps, and starting with solid pigment made it easier to detect adulteration.
To spare consumers this ordeal, retailers took orders for custom-mixed paints. Later some merchants began to prepare barrels of the most popular colors for sale in the spring, the busiest painting season. Professional painters did this too, as a sideline. Consumers supplied their own containers, bought enough paint for one day’s work, and hurried home before it dried out or separated. The popularity of these paints was the inspiration for the large-scale manufacture of ready-mixed paints, also called patent paints. Daniel F. Tiemann, one of the earliest American pigment manufacturers, is often cited as the first manufacturer of ready-mixed paints, beginning in 1852. (Tiemann was also a successful politician who served as New York’s mayor in 1858-59.) John Lucas and Company also entered the business at an early date, producing ready-to-use paints at its plant in Gibbsboro, New Jersey.
The main challenges in making ready-mixed paints were obtaining complete dispersion of the pigment in the vehicle and then keeping it from settling and separating. (Once a mixture had separated, heavy equipment and lots of elbow grease would be needed to create a proper dispersion again.) Both these concerns required the pigment to be ground extremely fine. Achieving the proper consistency was another tricky matter. Particles dispersed more easily in a thin paint than in a thick one, but they also settled out more easily. Moreover, a thin paint covered a wall well and remained usable longer, but it required more coats.
All the early patent paints had a poor reputation because they were thin and lacked opacity. The widespread use of lime and calcium carbonate instead of more expensive white lead produced paint that streaked. Some manufacturers diluted their paints with too much water; others added crushed pebbles to make the cans heavier. Yet despite the poor quality of patent paints, there was a market for them because Victorian interior design embraced color.
In the mid-nineteenth century the middle class was more prosperous than ever before and wanted to imitate the richly decorated mansions of the upper class. How-to books offered complex schemes using seven or eight different colors in one room. Stenciled borders, false finishes (such as wood grain), and painted door panels were in vogue. The proliferation of gaslight was another factor in the new popularity of paint. Gaslights, which were common by 1860, showed off a brightly painted room to better advantage than candles or oil lamps did.
Following the Civil War, many businessmen saw the enormous potential for patent paints, but the first to market top-quality ready-mixed paints were Henry Sherwin and his partners. Sherwin was born in Vermont in 1842 and left school at age 13 to work in a general store. He lived in a drafty attic above the store, and during the harsh winters, snow often blew in through the cracks. After a few years he moved to Cleveland, where his uncle had a law practice. Sherwin found a job in a dry-goods store, where he stood out for his ability to wrap hoop skirts in neat packages and spot wildcat money (worthless bills issued by undercapitalized banks). Next he worked for a grocery wholesaler, who eventually offered him a partnership. Sherwin declined because the firm sold liquor and he was a temperance man.
By 1866 the thrifty and ambitious Sherwin had saved $2,000 and was looking for a business opportunity. He decided to buy an interest in Truman Dunham & Company, a firm that sold pigments, linseed oil, brushes, and other supplies related to painting. Although he had no experience in the paint business, Sherwin was a quick study. He asked a lot of questions, read books and trade catalogues, and did menial jobs to learn the business from the bottom up.
After three years he broke with Truman Dunham when the company partners began to concentrate on linseed oil and he decided that his interests lay elsewhere. He quickly found two new partners, Alanson T. Osborn and Edward Porter Williams, and started a company to wholesale and retail window glass and paint ingredients. In 1871 this new firm, Sherwin-Williams & Company, began to manufacture varnishes. Two years later it started producing putty, paste pigments, and oil colors.
Osborn would leave the company in 1882, but the other two partners worked together until Williams died in 1903. Sherwin was a quiet, methodical administrator, while Williams was an extroverted natural salesman. Sherwin was self-educated; Williams was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Western Reserve College. Sherwin had little time for frivolity; Williams was an excellent whist player. Sherwin was reserved; Williams had a quick temper and was noted for his masterful use of profanity. Despite their differences, both were obsessed with producing top-quality products. Both were willing to roll up their shirtsleeves and work side-by-side with the men in the factory. Sherwin, a stickler for cleanliness, conducted sporadic surprise inspections of the company’s offices and plant. Disorder was an abomination to Sherwin, who hated soiled blotters, gummy inkstands, and cluttered desktops. He even looked for dirt in corners, underneath stairwells, and behind machinery.
Sherwin became friends with Damon R. Averill, a paint manufacturer with a plant in Newburgh, just south of Cleveland. In 1867 Averill had taken out a patent with which he hoped to dominate the ready-mixed paint business. The patent specified a mixture of linseed oil and zinc oxide (a white pigment that was starting to become popular as a higherpriced alternative to white lead), with smaller amounts of lead acetate (a drying agent also known as sugar of lead), zinc sulfate (another drying agent), water, sodium silicate, lime water, and benzine. Other pigments could be added to make colored paints. Although the patent set forth a long and precise recipe, Averill sued virtually every maker of zinc oxide paint as an infringer until his patent was declared excessively broad, and thus invalid, in 1881.
Sherwin found that Averill’s factory was producing an inferior product, mainly because the ingredients were of poor quality. Although Averill’s paint maintained dispersion, it was runny and lacked opacity. Sherwin left the plant convinced that second-rate patent paint was a liability for the entire industry. But despite his low opinion of Averill’s product, he realized that there could be a market for high-quality ready-mixed paint.
He approached the problem of creating such a product methodically. Since good ingredients were essential, Sherwin-Williams & Company adopted a plan for vertical integration, embarking on an acquisition program that eventually encompassed everything from raw materials to packaging. Over a period of years, the company bought or built lead and zinc mines, smelters, linseed-oil plants, pigment factories, machines for printing labels, and equipment for manufacturing and filling paint cans.
To overcome the problems that had plagued patent paints, Sherwin initiated a series of meticulous experiments. In the mid1870s he and Henry Coventry, a company engineer, invented an improved stone pigment mill with water-cooled grinding surfaces and more efficient bearings than the old kind. It could pulverize pigments to extraordinary and uniform fineness. The design was so efficient that it remained in use at Sherwin-Williams for more than 50 years with only minor modifications.
Even with all the advances in formulation, production, and quality control, one problem remained: No ready-mixed paint could be sold until a sturdy, inexpensive, resealable, and airtight container was invented to store it in. Beginning in the late 1850s, various schemes were patented to seal paint cans. Some involved metal tabs or latches to hold the top in place. An 1867 design by Frederick W. Devoe, the founder of a company that still sells paint under the Devoe name, required the user to bend sharpened wires over the top and embed them in a wooden lid. Perhaps the earliest paint can resembling the modern design, with a close-fitting lip into which a metal lid is pressed, was patented by E. B. Hamlin of St. Louis in 1868. In 1877 Sherwin was issued a patent for an improved paint can, and two years later he bought another patent from a man named Hubert Hull. With these two patents, Sherwin-Williams had the container it needed.
In 1875 Sherwin-Williams produced its first ready-made exterior paint, a blue enamel. Three years later it launched Osborn Family Paint, its first line of ready-mixed interior colors. It has been suggested that Sherwin named this line for Osborn because he wanted to protect the Sherwin-Williams name if the venture failed. This precaution proved well-advised, as two years of slow sales showed that it would not be easy to overcome consumers’ distrust of patent paints.
Then Williams came up with a plan: The company would relaunch its ready-mixed exterior paint under a new brand name and back it with an ironclad guarantee. In 1880 Sherwin-Williams introduced the first paint to bear the Sherwin-Williams brand. Printed on each can was the following warranty: “We guarantee that this paint, when properly used, will not crack, flake, or chalk off and will cover more surface, work better, wear longer, and permanently look better than other paints, including Pure White Lead and Oil. We hereby agree to forfeit the value of the paint and the cost of applying it if in any instance it is not found as above represented.”
In an era when many companies questioned the value of advertising, Sherwin-Williams showed a keen understanding of its importance. While most paint makers focused on selling their products in a small geographic area, Sherwin-Williams launched nationwide promotions with magazine advertising and point-of-purchase displays. Early ads explained that paint both beautified and protected a home. A typical one claimed that $10 worth of paint, “judiciously” applied, added $200 to the selling price and $500 to the “living in” value of a $1,000 house.
Sherwin handled all the firm’s advertising for several years, but when it became obvious that a full-time advertising manager was needed, he hired George Ford. Ford’s most durable contribution to Sherwin-Williams was undoubtedly the Cover the Earth logo. The company’s original logo, designed by Sherwin, was a chameleon lying on a painter’s palette. But Ford thought that Sherwin-Williams needed a simpler logo that would catch the eve and instantlv convev a message.
Ford also handled advertising for Eureka cleanser, which was manufactured by a small company in which he had a financial interest. In advertising Eureka, he used a sketch of the globe with elves holding scrub brushes and cans of the cleanser. When the Eureka company folded, Ford decided to adapt the idea for Sherwin-Williams. In 1895, after much doodling, he came up with a can pouring paint over the globe. The Cover the Earth logo became a familiar feature of Sherwin-Williams’s advertising, and in 1905 it was registered as the company’s trademark.
The manufacture of ready-mixed paint was made possible by the Industrial Revolution. Improvements in containers and production machinery, large-scale mining and agriculture, the growth of rail and ship transport, and industrial finance and organization, all had combined to improve product quality and ultimately to simplify the painter’s job. Yet most of these ad- vances had to do with packaging and production; the paint inside the can was not greatly different from what craftsmen had previously mixed for themselves.
At the turn of the century, the paint industry relied on secret processes and formulas, which were jealously guarded by highly paid foremen who took their knowledge with them from job to job. In some factories, components were identified by numbers so that workers would not know what materials they were mixing. Sherwin-Williams hired its first chemist in 1884, but according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica , “As late as 1910, so few chemists were occupied with paint technology that it was said that one of them could probably name all the others.” It took the Chemical Revolution to turn paint into a subject for systematic scientific inquiry.
In 1900 the commercial market for paint was about evenly divided between the building trades and industrial users, chiefly railroads. By 1920 both these markets had been outstripped by an industry that had barely existed two decades earlier: automobiles. While Sherwin-Williams continued to dominate the industry, DuPont found a lucrative niche by creating fast-drying paints for cars (the famous Duco lacquer, which was so successful that Sherwin-Williams eventually had to take out a license on the patent) as well as formulas to be used for appliances, signs, and other paint-onmetal applications.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, zinc white (zinc oxide) became cheap enough to offer the first serious alternative to white lead. Another popular white pigment, mostly for indoor uses, was lithopone, a mixture of zinc sulfide and barium sulfate. Although generally considered inferior to white lead, zinc white and lithopone were cheaper and less toxic. Both these pigments became readily available as cheap electricity simplified the refining of zinc and multiplied its industrial uses.
During the 1920s and 1930s titanium dioxide started to look like another promising white pigment. Advances in aviation had a lot to do with it. As aeronautical engineers demanded ever-stronger structural materials, the chemistry of titanium, a key component in aircraft alloys, became better understood. On the eve of World War II, titanium paints were being commercially marketed, and by the late 1970s titanium dioxide had become cheap enough that lead house paint could be banned throughout the United States because of the health hazards it posed, especially for children.
Besides the advances made in pigments (and white pigments were, of course, just a small part of the story), the twentieth century also saw the development of new vehicles. Linseed oil still worked well, but it had disadvantages, including the time required for drying, the need for special chemicals to thin the paint and clean the brushes, and the unpleasant smell it created. Fumes from drying paint also created health and fire hazards, which were a particular concern in naval vessels. The first widely popular water-based paint was Kem-Tone, a Sherwin-Williams product introduced in 1941. It used casein, corn protein, and rosin to bind small amounts of linseed oil in an emulsion with a much larger amount of water.
Kem-Tone contained no white lead; its main pigments were titanium dioxide and calcium carbonate (chalk), along with clay, silica, and mica. Additives were present in small amounts to assist the emulsion process and control other properties. A related Sherwin-Williams invention introduced at the same time was the Roller-Koater, the first successful paint roller. With its increased speed and the easy cleaning made possible by a water-based formula, painting became a much easier job for weekend handymen—just in time for wartime labor shortages and the ensuing postwar suburbanization.
Much clever chemistry went into formulating Kem-Tone and other World War II-era waterborne paints. Still, they were ultimately based on minerals and plant extracts, just as in the days of the cave dwellers. The final step in adapting paint to the Chemical Revolution would come when it was based on purely synthetic products. This first occurred in the late 1940s with the development of latex paint.
The basic components of latex paint are pigment, which can be the same as in ordinary paint; fine spherical particles of a synthetic polymer; resin; and water. These ingredients are mixed together in a dispersion, rather than a stable emulsion, as in Kern-Tone. Since there is no linseed oil, the paint dries as soon as the water evaporates. The particles of rubber and pigment that are left behind are bound together by the resin in an extremely tough film that resists stains and cracking and can be washed. Other substances are added to help maintain the dispersion, promote cohesion and film formation, and prevent yellowing.
The first latex paint to be marketed commercially was Glidden’s Spred Satin, in 1948. It was based on styrene-butadiene, a copolymer developed during the pre-war synthetic-rubber research program. Glidden initiated a unique promotional campaign in which top executives gave demonstrations at department, hardware, and specialty stores. First the executive applied Spred Satin to a surface, and then he extolled its virtues for 20 minutes while it dried. Next he spilled mustard and ketchup on it and marked it with lipstick and crayons. For the big finish, he demonstrated how easily the paint could be wiped clean.
In 1950 Glidden sold 3.5 million gallons of latex paint, and by the following year at least six major manufacturers, including Sherwin-Williams, were marketing their own versions. Later decades saw the introduction of many new synthetic materials for varying needs and budgets, including acrylic polymers, which form particularly tough and long-lasting films. Today latex coatings account for more than 75 percent of paint-industry dollar volume. Oil paint is mostly reserved for exterior use because of its greater durability, and even there latex is gaining ground.
As late as the 1930s, a few craftsmen continued to mix their own paints, but nowadays the era when a painter had to be a chemist too is long gone. What the Puritans saw as a prideful extravagance is today considered a necessity. Henry Sherwin set this process in motion when he realized that in a country held ever more closely together by expanding transportation networks, selling top-quality prepared paint could be a very profitable business. Although Sherwin-Williams paint did not differ greatly from traditional formulations, it still required an industrial revolution to make it possible and to pave the way for the highly advanced, chemically engineered paints of today.