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The large dining room at George Washington's home in Mount Vernon, Virginia.
George Washington's paint in question was verdigris, a pigment made by suspending copper over a bath of vinegar; it was very fashionable in both Europe and America at the end of the 18th century. Looking at its restoration (with hand-ground paints) at Mount Vernon, Virginia, today it still seems so exotic — one can see why the future president obsessed about it. But he and his craftsmen had not done their chemical homework, to miserable effect.
If Washington or his works manager, Lund Washington, had had access to the 15th-century classic Il Libro dell’ Arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook) by the artist Cennino Cennini, they would have discovered that, according to the book:
A color known as verdigris is green. It is very green by itself. And it is manufactured by alchemy, from copper and vinegar. This color is good on panel, tempered with size. Take care never to get it near any white lead, for they are mortal enemies in every respect. Work it up with vinegar, which it retains in accordance with its nature. And if you wish to make a most perfect green for grass … it is beautiful to the eye, but it does not last.
But Lund put lead white on the finishes, and within a few months, the bright turquoise had darkened and needed to be replaced — although it was finished again in time for G.W. and his family to be in that room in 1789 when they learned he was to be the first president of the United States.
The paint that later became notorious for being toxic was discovered almost accidentally in Sweden in 1775 by a scientist called Carl Wilhelm Scheele. It was a bright and almost shocking shade, reminiscent of deep emerald. He called it Scheele’s Green, and from the beginning it was a sensation. Parents particularly loved it for their children’s bedrooms, as it was so much brighter than the dull grays and browns they were used to, but it was also used for artificial flowers, carpets and clothes, and it stayed in fashion for a century.
Yet this color was a killer: Children and invalids died from sleeping in their green rooms; a Persian cat locked in an emerald bedroom was discovered covered in pustules; Napoleon died rather mysteriously on St. Helena Island in a green bedroom, and it was only in the 1980s that anyone was able to do an analysis on his hair. It had traces of one of the key ingredients of Scheele’s green: arsenic.
Why England's post boxes are red
The color of England's pillar post boxes, which we now take for granted, was a matter of deep consternation when the post office started using them (rather than home collections) in the 19th century. The first boxes were green, until people complained that they were always bumping into them, so in the early 1880s they were repainted an eye-catching red silicate enamel. The enamel did not last, and in many places faded hopelessly to a pinky white within a few months.
The trouble was, for years there was no paint available that was bright and yet could withstand the competing challenges of sunshine and frost. In the post office archives there are several letters from members of the public complaining about the color. One person suggested they paint them gray like battleships, which at least would have had the merit of staying color consistent — because surely people knew by then where their local post boxes were to be found.
We can, of course, be nostalgic for a past where the colors of our paints were made from real things: rocks, plants, galls, soot and sometimes (in the case of carmine) little round bugs. But then we can be grateful too: Today’s synthetic colors probably will not poison us; they will probably not mix with other paints and have dramatic chemical reactions. And unlike with George Washington’s much-wanted, though quickly fading, large green dining room, we can be fairly confident that once it is on the wall, it will stay on the wall until we make the considered decision to paint over it and try something new.