Traditional Building Portfolio

Where have all the colors gone?

By John Crosby Freeman

I cry out to you, Pete Seeger. Where have all those flowers of America's historic colors gone? Alas, corporate support for that excellent invention of the late-20th century - historic paint color cards - has dwindled; but don't despair. America's classic paint colors are accessible today in plain view, if you know where to look for them. But first, a brief survey of our best historic color cards.

Colonial Williamsburg, VA
The cavalcade of cards begins with pioneer research of Colonial Williamsburg, VA, in the late 1920s. Mocked by a later, more scientific generation as "scratch-and-match," a small selection of interior colors, first franchised to Masury in the 1930s, was expanded by Pittsburgh in the 1940s with the useful addition of tints the trade calls "let-downs."

Martin-Senour took the franchise in 1965 one sunny afternoon on a Williamsburg golf course, and exterior colors were added in 1967. The evolution of CW colors documented to specific buildings is recorded in Pittsburgh and M-S color cards surviving in old Williamsburg Reproductions catalogues. Continuously refined through research, it is our oldest site and a time-specific collection of historic colors. The popular color, Williamsburg Blue–probably the bluish gray of Apollo Room Blue–was never named as such.

Charleston, SC
Publication of the first card in 1987 was sponsored by Sherwin-Williams for a prestigious local Dutch Boy dealer. Based on local color analysis, its most useful feature was an index indicating "Architectural Period" and "Documented Uses" for interiors and exteriors. The current palette can be accessed at via the superb Sherwin-Williams Color Visualizer. The first name for famous Charleston Shutter Green was Charleston Black Green. It was originally an Emerald Blind Green notorious for blackening in a sulfuric atmosphere. It is similar to S-W Evergreens (6447).

Philadelphia, Mt. Vernon, and Beyond
"Authentic Colors of Historic Philadelphia" includes 10 National Park Service-certified colors. Produced by Finnaren & Haley, an old Philadelphia paint company recently consumed by Benjamin-Moore, the card might be found in F&H stores taken over by B-M. Fine Paints of Europe, which upgraded Mt. Vernon's first Estate of Colors with 30 documented interior colors ( Smaller historic towns lent their names to regional paint company palettes based on little or no site-based research: Cape May, NJ; Mobile, AL; New Orleans, LA; Saratoga Springs, NY; Smithfield, NJ; and Springfield, IL. Company cards "authenticated" by their color stylists are: Ace, Benjamin-Moore, Cook & Dunn, Duron, Glidden, Graham, Martin-Senour, Pratt & Lambert, Pittsburgh, Tru-Test, and Valspar. California Paints concocted "Historic Colors of America" with SPNEA (rebranded as Historic New England) for itself and 37 small paint companies of Color Guild International. Three reliable British sources are (featuring Parsons Historical Colors and the researches of Patrick Baty), (featuring National Trust Colors), and Mylands Colours of London (

Jewels in the Crown
Founded in 1754, Devoe is America's oldest paint brand, currently stabled at PPG. In 1885, it published Exterior Decoration, a splendid folio volume of 20 color plates and 50 large color samples. Reprinted by the Athenaeum of Philadelphia in 1975, Devoe reproduced color chips for the book and its Traditions color card. Today's only access is color-matching the reprint chips. Subsequent color cards mined Exterior Decoration for its Victorian palettes, including the Sherwin-Williams 1981 exterior Heritage Colors that survive in today's Preservation Palette.

Hired by Valspar at Lowe's to produce three historic Southern Heritage color cards, I shamelessly followed the advice of Tom Lehrer's mythic Lobachevsky to "let no one else's work evade" my eyes and call it "research." Such was the procedure that produced the last of the great American historic color cards. Bucking the trend for frivolous naming of colors, gone viral in our new century, I soberly chose names grounded in reality and tradition. My only flight of color marketing fancy was naming a faintly pink and exceptionally charming interior off-white as "Champagne."

Orchestrating a Color Card
It is self-evident that sequences of colors should enhance them; but no color card explicitly says so, with one rare exception. Philadelphia's Harrison Brothers captioned their color card keyed to 35 delicious color plates of its 1883 Town and Country House Painting with a disclaimer that reveals the common goal of all color cards. "Arrangement for sake of ready reference is numerical–all considerations of contrast, or combinations of colors, discarded." Internet access is New York Pubic Library Digital Gallery (

The hardest part of orchestrating a color card is not selecting colors; it is arranging them to enhance pleasing contrasts and suggest combinations of colors by flanking vertical monochromatic sequences with contrasting colors that also suggest combinations on the diagonals. Here are two tricks for making your own color cards: Separate blue-based sequences, because they don't like each other in our eyes, and sequester them between more congenial warm colors. Segregating off-whites and dark trim colors applicable to many combinations makes room for more light and mid-tone options. Alas, all published color cards are crippled by lack of space to display a full range of tints and shades required by job sites.

Master Painter Colors
My pilgrimage to discover America's Master Painter Colors begins when Steve Schuyler ( sold me two items: The Painter's Hand-Book (1887) with 116 chromo-lithographed colors for professional Master Painters, and an early-20th-century SEROCO [SEars-ROebuck COmpany] paint catalogue of common colors for their house plans and ready-cut homes. All of the colors–including their tints, shades and adjacent tones–are accessible in the Sherwin-Williams color selectors of your local store. Pull the following sequence of numbered color strips in the big color selector to assemble the great majority of them for your own personal fan deck of over 400 Master Painter Colors: 1-3, 5, 7-10, 13-27, 29, 37, 43, 48-51, 53-65, 68-69, 90-92, 95-103, 108-109. Once you get acquainted with Master Painter Colors, you will be surprised by how many of them appear on S-W's yearly hit lists of the most popular colors and assortments of trend colors. What is old is new again.  

John Crosby Freeman, The Color Doctor, resides at Norristown in the Greater Philadelphia cradle of the American paint industry. He can be reached at


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