By Jessica Goldblatt Barber
One may think that using milk to paint with is a very strange concept. But think of this — just try drinking a glass of milk and then leaving the glass on your bedside table or next to the kitchen sink. The next morning the milky residue has hardened and is not easy to remove. Milk is a strong binder, especially when mixed with crushed limestone, the basic binder in one of the world’s earliest paints, milk paint. Some of the oldest painted surfaces on earth, including cave paintings in France and items in King Tutankhamen’s tomb, were colored with a simple composition of milk, lime, and earth pigments.
Because the original formulas for milk paint were so simple to make and use, milk paint was for thousands of years a durable, major form of decoration throughout the world. Formulas varied greatly, and produced varied results, but it was always a combination of milk protein (casein), lime, clay and pigments used. The colors on those early cave paintings in France, even though exposed to the open air for centuries, are as vivid today as they must have been all those years ago.
In Colonial America, itinerant painters roamed the countryside, carrying pigments with them, which could be mixed with a homeowner’s own milk. Practically every household had their own cow or goat, and each community had its own lime pit. Even though many examples of early American furniture painted with some form of oil paint exist, the look associated most widely with the country homes and furniture of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries is that of the soft, velvety, rich colors of milk paint.
This scene doesn’t change much until after the Civil War. In 1868, the first patent was given for the metal paint can with its tightly fitting top, and the commercial paint industry was born. For the first time, paint could be manufactured in great mass, packaged in the new patented cans and shipped to stores throughout the country.
But this kind of operation does not lend itself to the use of milk paint. Made from natural milk protein, it can spoil just like whole milk. Therefore, from the very beginning of the commercial oil paint industry, up until 1935, the only paint sold commercially was oil-based paint, to which lead, mildewcides, and other poisonous additives were added. Latex paint followed, which also contained additives and preservatives, along with oil that commonly contained lead and mercury..
When Charles Thibeau was researching old milk paint formulas in the early 1970’s to provide an authentic finish for his Colonial- reproduction furniture, he came up with a formulation that remained true to the natural ingredients found in these old recipes, using the milk protein in a powdered form. He found that he could simply add water to the mixture and just mix up what he needed at the time, eliminating the need for preservatives or other chemicals to keep the paint fresh. This was especially important when, after being interviewed for a Yankee Publications’ book on about the forgotten arts in 1974, Thibeau’s phone started ringing off the hook with requests for this old fashioned milk paint. And thus, The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company was born and Thibeau was able to ship his formula far and wide in a convenient powder form. Not only does his milk paint provide the warmth and colors of Colonial America, it remains all-natural, 100% biodegradable, with no harmful volatile organic compounds (VOC’s).
Today the milk paint company is run by Thibeau’s daughter, Anne, and there are over 400 dealers worldwide selling Old Fashioned Milk Paint and the company’s newer SafePaint wall formula.
Jessica Goldblatt Barber is the owner of Interiors Green — the Home and Living Store at 2021 Main Street in Bethlehem, NH, where you can find these products.