01 June 2009

Paint that porch ceiling Haint Blue


I spend a fair amount of time specifying paint colors for people and last week I was working on a color scheme for the exterior of an older home. The clients warned me that they didn't want anything wild. I took that as a good sign because clearly, they'd seen some of my more adventurous work and they still called me.


So I came up with a scheme that involved three shades of taupe, white trim and a black front door. Ho-hum, but it was pretty refined and as instructed, "not wild." However, this house has wrap-around porches on the first and second floors, after all it's an old, traditional Florida house. I specified Sherwin Williams 7608, Adrift, for the porch ceilings. Adrift is a light, neutral blue. In an effort to sell the idea I referred to the ceiling color as Haint Blue and they were smitten and signed off immediately.


Painting a porch ceiling blue is a very traditional effect, even though it doesn't show up very often anymore. It's a southern thing, but I'm a Yankee's Yankee and I grew up in a house with a blue porch ceiling in Pennsylvania. Ours were blue because that was the color they were painted when my parents bought that house in the '60s and we never changed it. I think that there was some vague story about the color keeping spiders away. Like I said, they were vague stories and really, we never really talked about it very much. But every time we painted the house, those porch ceilings stayed blue.

Well, about a year-and-a-half ago, a great friend of mine moved to New Orleans. Within days of his landing there, he turned into a combination of Marie Laveau and Tennessee Williams. In a matter of hours, he'd absorbed all of the lore of that fable-filled city and was spouting it back like a lifetime resident. I have never seen someone make a geographic transition with that kind of ease and thoroughness. I envy him his sense of place sometimes. Anyhow, when he was telling me about his house on about day two, he mentioned that its front porch had a Haint Blue ceiling.

I'd never heard the term before, but I knew exactly what he meant. Apparently Haint Blue still figures prominently into New Orleans homes. I asked him where it got its name and he said that New Orleanians use that paint color to keep away haints, or or spirits of the dead with bad intentions.

Well, I did a little digging around, and the practice of painting a porch ceiling blue did start in the American south. The expression Haint Blue comes from the Gullah people of the South Carolina and Georgia  low country. They painted the entries to their homes light blue to keep the bad spirits away. The blue color represented water, and as everybody knows, haints can't cross water.


If you were an impoverished descendant of slaves in the coastal south in the 1800s, you got paint the same way you built your house --from scratch. Powdered pigments were mixed with lime, white lead and milk. The lime and lead content of those early paints probably had the added benefit of poisoning insects that landed on it. So even though the pigment got all the credit, the credit was actually due to the toxic soup the pigments were suspended in. Any color of those old, home-brewed paints would have poisoned insects, but the Haint Blue got all the glory. This is interesting, because a blue ceiling is credited with repelling insects even now. Paint doesn't have lime or lead in it anymore, so it's not surprising that modern Haint Blue (and all house paint) is completely ineffective as a bug repellent.


All of the woo-woo nonsense not withstanding, painting a porch ceiling blue is an interesting, and depending on where you live, unexpected touch. So even if I don't buy the myth, I appreciate the connection to the past. If you're in the mood for an exterior color change , think about adding some Haint Blue.

15 comments:

  1. Those porches look so inviting to me, maybe it means I have good intentions ?
    We have those blues (the second and third ones) on the windows and shutters of our house in Positano. Looks good with the white washed walls and the blue of the sea.

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  2. Blue accents aren't an American invention obviously. But blue paint on houses seems to have some kind of cross-cultural appeal. Probably because it's the color of the sky in good weather and the color of a calm sea, it's usually associated with good intentions.

    I can only imagine how good it looks in Positano, when it's framed by that blue-like-no-other-blue of the Med. I'd love to see some photos of your house some time.

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  3. How funny! We were just talking about this last night at my sister's house. Part of their porch ceiling is stained a dark dark blue and the newer section is a pale blue.

    I've done a couple of stories on this because of a big paint job we did at the house where I work. Here and here.

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  4. It amazes me for all the talk about Haint Blue that's out there, that there are still people who think it's daring. I love this kind of stuff and thanks for the links. I think I'm going to do a survey of the blogosphere on this topic and put together a resource. Your previous posts will figure in it highly.

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  5. I LOVE the blue porch ceilings you posted!! And the history behind them is really interesting. Thanks so much for researching Haint Blue and sharing your findings with us :-)

    In general, I love painted ceilings. A ceiling is a huge blank canvas in a room, why not add colour and make it a lot more interesting than plain white :-)

    Kelly

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  6. I'm right there with you Kelly.

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  7. I grew up in South Carolina and lived in Charleston during college. Maybe I was too busy with other things, but the blue porch ceilings escaped me. I love that you have brought them back to the light of day -- they're lovely! We have a generous porch on our bungalow; do you think it would work for our beadboard porch ceiling? It's not a typically southern house, but the porch has a southern feel.

    As always, love your blog.

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  8. Thanks Rae and yes, a beaded porch ceiling is begging to be painted Haint Blue. It's an interesting, traditional touch with a great story to tell when people inevitably ask, "Why is your ceiling blue?" Go for it!

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  9. thanks for explaining this...I have been wondering about it for a decade since I saw my first blue porch ceiling on a old victorian house here in the South.

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  10. My pleasure! Few things make me happier than learning about why something is the way that it is. I'm glad to have a forum where I can spread that around.

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  11. Hi Paul:

    Your first example of "Haint Blue" caught my eye. The other two are good examples of what most people typically expect Haint Blue will look like. I've actually done quite a bit of research about the significance and spiritual affects of blue and am curious about the backstory - if there is one - about that first blue swatch up there. The aquamarine slant stands out and piqued my curiosity.

    Thanks,
    Lori

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  12. Hey Lori,

    Thanks for your comment. That's a Sherwin-Williams color you mentioned, and I pulled it out of my online SW palette. I picked it because it caught my eye and in my researching this topic, I found that there's no real definition of what Haint Blue is.

    Historically, Haint Blue was made on site with materials on hand. Most paints were made that way, but Haint Blue is a tradition born of poverty (in the US). What materials were on hand varied greatly from location to location. So if we could travel back to coastal Georgia in the 1800s, we'd probably see a range similar to the colors at the top of the page.

    That there is no real definition of the color is one of the things that I find so appealing about the practice. It's not prescribed very rigidly and it seems to be more a sensibility and an impulse than anything else.

    That it's a tradition born of grinding poverty guarantees that no records were kept of its history and evolution. So it instead lives on in a nether world of folk way and myth. Everybody has a different story about it. That's another aspect to the color and practice I find so appealing.

    So far as a backstory of that aquamarine goes, there really isn't one. I've seen it show up across the range of blues I show at the start of this entry. I'd already picked the two lighter colors and I needed a deeper hue to round out the three examples.

    Sometimes, a thing is just a thing.

    Thanks for reading me and thanks again for your comment Lori.

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  13. Thanks for doing the research and sharing with all of us, I live in South Carolina on the water and we were deciding to paint the ceiling of our porches blue. I knew it had some sort of "blessing" effect on the house, I just was unsure of all the details. I do have a question, if there are boards running along the top of the roof, do you paint those blue as well or leave them white?
    Thanks again!
    Kristi

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  14. the reason they call it haint blue is "it haint green and it haint blue!" :0)

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  15. My visit to New Orleans in 1999 made a big impression on me. I took a garden tour while I was there and seen many blue porch ceilings as we strolled the garden district. I live in Washington state and the memories of my trip has inpired me to paint our new shed/cabana porch celing with those same colors I remember from my trip. If I could post a picture, I would.

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