by Matthew Colin Bailey

View of the Temple of Neptune, View of the Temple of Neptune, Plate "X" from the series, "Views of Paestum," 1778.

View of the Temple of Neptune, View of the Temple of Neptune, Plate “X” from the series, “Views of Paestum,” 1778.

(October 29, 2012) – Have you ever stepped onto the porch of an historic house and noticed that the ceiling was a pale shade of blue? If you’ve noticed this porch ceiling color on more than just a few occasions, we’re sorry to say that you’re not witness to some unusual phenomenon; it’s actually quite common. There are a few tales floating around out there as to why so many houses of significant age sport blue ceilings. Our favorite and perhaps the most justifiable of reasons in the case of the Greek-Revival Belle Meade mansion is that Greek archaeology became increasingly popular during the mid-nineteenth century. At the time, the ruins of ancient Greek buildings were popularly depicted as only consisting of the remainder of a building’s stone columns and entablature (beams). With the ancient roof tops long gone from years of weathering storms, wars, and time, visitors and archaeologist were witness to blue open sky ceilings which they apparently enjoyed so much that when they emulated the architecture of the ancient cultures, they painted the porch ceilings of their revival buildings a pale sky blue.

Teal Blue Porch Ceiling at Belle Meade Plantation

Teal Blue Porch Ceiling at Belle Meade Plantation

Sky blue isn’t the only shade used to paint porch ceilings though. Other colors include various shades of teal, aqua, periwinkle, robin’s-egg, cobalt and grey and each shade has a special reason for being different, including the scaring away of evil spirits, deterring spiders and wasp from building webs and nests around the porch, and creating the sensation of extended daylight hours.

The majority of 19th and early 20th century blue porch roof colors are perhaps just as much controlled by cultural influences as they are by technology, expense and availability. While culture is the driver, perhaps led by the tales of Greek archaeology, pesky spiders or evil spirits, the technological ability to mix the right shade of color wasn’t a perfected science in some regions, nor was it possible to mix exacting shades of blue due to the availability of various pigments and the amount of money one could spend on purchasing expensive pigments.

If you’re repelling insects, you might choose a light prussian blue to emulate the sky as closely as possible. Supposedly, this shade of blue will fool insects and birds into thinking the ceiling is open sky, causing them to nest elsewhere. Though it’s been discredited that this color actually repels insects and birds, there may be truth within the technology of the time period that actually did repel insects. Most paints of the 19th century were milk paints, which contained lye. It’s well known that lye is a repellent of insects and since milk paint had to be refreshed every few years due to its tendency to wash off easily, a new coat would have to be applied, increasing the lye potency, further repelling insects.

If you’re the superstitious type, you might want to take a page out of history from the Gullah culture of South Carolina’s Low-Country. The Gullah culture is a mix of African tribes that were former slaves of the region. The Gullah insists that a shade of deep teal blue, known as “haint blue,” chases away evil spirits. You’ll find that many house components of the Gullah people are painted haint blue, including window frames, doors and porch ceilings.

 

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