Painting in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries


Business sheet of John Henry Wilkens, then of Cincinnati. Paper, 1890s. The Wilkens Family Collection.

During the nineteenth century,  new technologies began to change the practice of household painting. Painters traditionally had mixed their own materials with varying proportions of oils, colored pigments, and other liquids. Mixing paint took skill, and some of the ingredients, especially white lead, were highly toxic. However, by the 1870s, ready-mixed paints and finishes allowed ambitious homeowners to paint without calling on the expert knowledge or work of professional house and sign painters. For example, Sears, Roebuck, & Company “guaranteed” new products that replaced conventional unmixed white lead and linseed oil with a mixture of lead, oil, zinc, barytes, drier, and other compounds.

Courtesy, The Winterthur Library, TP937 S43 TC (Sears, Roebuck and Company, "Seroco Paints," ca. 1908)

“Guaranteed” ready-mixed Seroco Paints advertisement featuring and targeting professional painters, who now had the option not to mix their own materials. Trade catalog, Sears, Roebuck & Co., 1908. Courtesy, The Winterthur Library, TP937 S43 TC.

Obituary of John Henry Wilkens, whose exposure to paint lead caused his death. Sentinel-Tribune newspaper, Bowling Green, Ohio. 1922. The Wilkens Family Collection.

Obituary of John Henry Wilkens, whose exposure to paint lead caused his death. Sentinel-Tribune newspaper, Bowling Green, Ohio, 1922. The Wilkens Family Collection.

However, not all painters adopted consumer-friendly products like the Sears “Seroco” product. Many professionals like my Wilkens forefathers continued to choose and combine paint components themselves. Painting did pose dangers, however. Both ready- and self-mixed paints contained lead, exposure to which could eventually cause sickness and even death. Lead poisoning killed my great-great grandfather in 1922. Paint mixing and other professional skills could also be quite valuable. When the U.S. Army Air Force discharged my grandfather after World War Two, his separation papers noted that he “mixed [his] own paint,” “took care of brushes,” and “did rigging and scaffolding.”

proto-roller 1890

Illustration from U.S. patent 431,586 A, “Tool for painters and decorators,” filed by Richard Lennington Hutchins, 1890.

Around the time that ready-mixed paints laid the foundation of do-it-yourself painting , American designers began to experiment with rolling devices to speed up work. The patent for the first tool resembling a modern paint roller was granted in 1890. Its technological antecedents included boot brushes and buffs as well as wallpapering and graining rollers. During the six decades between its inception and mass-market acceptance, the design of the paint roller changed steadily. Patent records suggest that the interchangeable cardboard roller cover tube emerged in the 1920s. This development would eventually evolve into the replaceable and disposable cover that overtook much of the post-World War Two market for painting supplies.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s