I am betting that we are spending a bit more time behind our home door and on the computer these days. The COVID-19 public heath mandates to stay home (if you can) means that we may have time to explore more about our family and history in general. I read an interesting article on why people used the color blue (or Indigo) on their houses, what it meant, and impact it had on people. The following information and credit to the www.historicalpost.com.
Take a tour of the American South, and you’ll no doubt notice a common feature of the traditional houses pushed back from the sidewalks. Interestingly, the vast majority of homeowners have painted their porch ceilings and window shutters a particular shade of blue. And if you were to enquire about the name this color, you’d probably be informed that it’s “haint blue.” Yet the history behind the use of this popular shade is likely more sobering than you’d initially imagine.
The porch-painting tradition had to have started somewhere. And it seems that the origins of painting blue shutters and porches could be rooted in either everyday concerns – or a more shameful shared history. The theory goes that the Victorians – or those who lived in the mid- to late-19th century – liked using paints reminiscent of nature to decorate their properties. So, for instance, your typical Victorian might have employed earthy colors, such as ochre or terracotta, on their home. This would apparently have brought to mind a sense of being outside. So, the Victorians seemingly chose blue for their porch ceilings for the exact same reason; it would remind them of bright, clear skies – even when the actual weather was miserable. A blue sky is an optimistic thing to look at. It reminds us of daybreak; it wards off gloomy weather and delays nightfall. Painting a ceiling blue brings in nature and the sky.
But there’s another practical reason for folks choosing a blue porch ceiling – though it may be more of a myth than many believe. You see, the theory goes that blue paint will help keep insects at bay during the warmer months. O’Neill said, “If an insect perceives that a ceiling is really the sky, it instinctively wouldn’t nest there. It depends how deep you want to go into the brain of an insect… but it’s not unlike how ladybugs will land on a white house. It’s a visual trick.” Other homeowners seemingly believe there’s truth in this theory, too, and they have painted their porch ceilings blue as a consequence. But it’s possible that it’s not 100 percent accurate – at least, not anymore.
Historically, the blue paints used on ceilings were normally “milk paints,” and they often had lye stirred into the mix for good measure. So, it was the lye that typically served to keep bugs away. And as milk paints would often deteriorate with the passage of time, the addition of extra layers of paint every now and then boosted the amount of lye on the ceilings and shutters. Yet people obviously started painting their porches and shutters blue for a reason. But was it for one of the reasons presented above – or the more sobering meaning we’ll soon explore? Or perhaps it’s because the color is simply adaptable; after all, there’s a blue to fit every kind of household.
The shade that we’re most interested in, though, is haint blue. This is the subtle, almost turquoise blue that is seemingly favored by southerners – particularly in South Carolina. And the name of this particular shade should offer up a clue to its supposed mythical origin. This in turn will also highlight the more shameful aspects of the color’s history. You see, the word haint actually refers to a spirit or ghost in southern folklore. But – as you could probably guess – these are not friendly spirits. According to the legends, haints or “boo hags” were unpleasant beings that had somehow liberated themselves from their human hosts. These dastardly ghosts would then roam the land after nightfall looking to maim or possibly murder anyone who might cross their paths. So, if you believed these stories – as the Gullah people of the South apparently did – it’s understandable that you might want some kind of protection against the evil haints.
So haint blue is supposed to confuse the spirits and therefore keep people safe from harm. But how does it do this? Well, it actually links into some of the factors we discussed earlier – namely that blue can resemble the color of the sky or water. This particular shade of blue was significant because the boo hags were believed to not have been able to travel through water. It was also thought that the spirits wouldn’t go near the sky because the victims they sought were on the ground. So, by painting ceilings, shutters and even glass bottles this particular hue, people believed that they were being protected.
But while the stories of boo hags might not necessarily be true, the history of haint blue paint is still shocking – and very real. It also has very little to do with supernatural spirits and everything to do with unfathomable hardship. In reality, it all started with indigo plants and a 16-year-old girl named Eliza Lucas. (http://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2008/09/eliza-lucas-pinckney.html)
Indigo dye – an essential component of blue paint – once came predominantly from indigo plants. This was a time long before synthetic indigo could be mass-produced, of course. And in the 18th century the hard-to-get dye from these herbs, trees and shrubs was a sign of affluence. So, it was a turning point in South Carolinian agricultural history when the young Lucas initially extracted indigo in 1742. This was the moment that the dye was first farmed in the United States, and just five years later, a shipment of the precious material made its way across the Atlantic.
Remember, the American Revolution wouldn’t occur for another 20 years – so at the time the United States was still a British colony. And as indigo was much sought after in Europe, the export of the dye became big business. In fact, at its most successful, over 1.2 million pounds of indigo left the U.S. in a single year, according to the South Carolina Encyclopedia. Incredibly, Ancestry.com claims that the indigo trade became the second-largest export business in the United States. Those in charge of the cultivation of the dye were therefore earning great wealth. And indigo was being used to create luxurious clothing for Europe’s upper classes. Yet there was one major catch to the large-scale production of the rare dye.
There was no easy way of cultivating the plant, and the process of transforming the plant to dye could take up to 20 hours. This involved labor-intensive, time-consuming methods such as soaking, beating, draining, drying and transporting the goods. It also depended on workers with specialist knowledge. There was another problem, too. As the demand for indigo increased, so too did the apparent need for slave labor. This led to an influx of African slaves to South Carolina. And according to Ancestry.com, more than half of all slaves landing in America ended up in the state.
Yet it wasn’t just the African slaves who found themselves falling on hard times. The demand for indigo got so great, you see, that plantations eventually started to run out of land. And this resulted in the land owners taking more land from nearby indigenous tribes. So now the increasing number of slaves found themselves working on ever-expanding territories of land. And, as you might imagine, the slaves had already endured horrifying conditions. The ships used to bring them into the country were typically rife with systematic abuse and disease, after all. Furthermore, a fifth of African slaves in the mid-18th century didn’t even make it off the boat, according to the Black History Month website.
The American Revolutionary War took place between 1775 and 1783. And after the conflict ended, the Thirteen Colonies achieved independence and officially founded the United States of America. But the trade of indigo effectively crashed a few years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The United States was no longer beholden to the Brits, after all, and the latter country began to look to India for its indigo needs. So as quickly as 1802 – just 20 years after the war – the dye wasn’t a factor in Carolina’s exportation trade. But it would still be another 63 before slavery was abolished – and land owners simply found another trade through which to exploit their workforce.
Those African slaves who first cultivated indigo were the forebears of the Gullah people. And it was their apparent belief in boo rags and haints that seemingly brought the color blue to prominence in the South. So, it’s this group who are also making strides to reclaim the importance of haint blue.
So the use of haint blue on shutters and porch ceilings throughout South Carolina and beyond is seemingly commonplace. Yet it appears that the history of this shade of blue is far from well known…. though, its importance should never be forgotten.