Much More Than a Sample: Paint Cards and Their Purpose

Beneath the Paint Chips: A Sample of Their History

We often think of home decorating starting in a some airy interior design office. There's a mood board on the wall and books stacked neatly with a terrarium on top. Perhaps a display or two of personal artifacts acquired during world travels. An actual scene or not, one thing is for sure: a trip to the paint store is still a must. 

Image: Decor Pad

Image: Decor Pad


The Ends of the Rainbow

Ah, the dizzying, inspiring, and—let's just take a moment to tip our hats to the merchandiser who set this up—impeccably organized paint sample display.


As someone who might have enjoyed arranging her crayons as much as using them, the ordered spectrum of paint chips has always been a restorative sight. Surely I'm not alone in collecting these cards for fun. And attendant to my appreciation is curiosity. Unsurprisingly, delving into the history of paint cards necessitates a look at Color Theory's own lineage: the origins of house painting. Yes, I actually did this Google search:

The short answer is sometime around the Industrial Revolution. The long answer, which I found here, is certainly worth the read. (Did you know there was, effectively, underground paint mixing? Me either.) New, efficient systems of manufacture, along with advances in the chemical formulations of paint, dovetailed with a growing rail industry in America. Put simply, more paint could go more places. A growing middle class had access to a product which allowed them to have their own slice of luxury: a home that was not merely functional, but stylish—even enviable—as well.

Paint companies began investing in the potential of this emerging market by developing new methods of promotion. The advertisements below date from the 1880's. What I especially love is how they glued on actual samples of paint. Restrictions in technology (mass-produced color printing had a ways to go at this point) ultimately resulted in a very real, physical presence (rather than an image) of the paint in the consumer's home via "color chip cards." I like to imagine that, not unlike us, those 19th century home-owners held teeny-tiny examples of paint up to the wall, attempting to envision it covering the entire surface. And, not unlike us, I imagine they struggled a bit as well.

Check out Architect Magazine's article, A Colorful History of Paint, for even more information and images. They also have a link to this veritable treasure trove of historical home decorating and improvement books. 


What's In a Name?

Another thing I noticed about the early paint samples is the color names. Apple Green, Pink Tint, Flaxen Yellow: The 19th century names are distinctly descriptive, definitely a far cry from more, um, poetic, names used by contemporary paint companies.

Today, our homes are more than reflections of class; our personal spaces communicate who we are as people—our personalities, preferences, and histories. In addition, we consider these rooms as intimate enclosures. Mood and ambience are no longer decorative by-products; They are structural and functional in the most definitive sense. For a sensitive, and perhaps transformative, meditation on our collective notions of home, Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space is a great read. And for a lighthearted take on paint color names, check out this Reddit thread

So now you know: A paint card is much more than its name. Beneath its seemingly disposable purpose it is actually something of a relic, a modern-day descendent of the complex—and ultimately, deeply human—desire to carve out a piece of the world that is truly ours.

Souces: Architect Magazine, The Magazine Antiques, Shearer Painting


Do you find yourself gravitating towards a particular palette when decorating your own home? What do you want these colors to say about you? If you ever want to discuss these questions further as you undertake the task of re-doing your own home, drop us a line. Color consultation is one of our passions!