Frequently, old houses have been incorrectly painted sometime during their life. In the 1930’s, during the Depression, it was common for many houses not to have had any maintenance, and the paint was almost worn away, exposing bare wood, and removing almost any trace of the original colour scheme. During the 1950’s, a revived fashion for all-white houses with green shutters again eliminated any traces of more colorful original color schemes.
To correctly assess an original paint scheme, the first thing to do is to carefully look at the original exterior of your house – assuming that is has not been stuccoed or covered with aluminum or vinyl siding. Look carefully at the placement of the trim, and the types of siding. Many times, painters or (worse) family or neighbors will suggest a two-tone paint scheme – a body color and a trim color only. But is that what the house wants?
If the house has a mix of siding materials – shingles and siding for example – or siding, stucco and board & batten cladding – as well as trim, then it is most likely that there were at least three colors on the house, and probably four or even five colors of paint.
Early houses relied on their paint schemes to accentuate the architectural features of the design. The colours chosen were as much a part of the architectural design of the house as the shape of the porch, or the brackets that held up the bargeboards. Colours were used to minimize the visual height of a house, or to accentuate the horizontal lines of a house, or to highlight a special feature, like a prominent gable over a front door perhaps.
Obliterating these visual highlights with a bland paint scheme does a disservice to the value of an older house.
Look at these examples of houses in their original colours. See where the designer thought it best to define the design, or highlight a feature. A band of trim around the middle of a house is a definite clue that colours changed here – the upper part of the house was different than the lower part.
Defining the trim by a paler colour (and pure white paint was rarely used – generally a warm cream or off-white color should be used for historical accuracy) was popular after 1900. Pre-1900 Victorian houses generally used darker colored trim and Edwardian houses built after 1900 used paler trim colors, adding to an all-over lightness in colour schemes that became popular with some housing styles in the first decades of the twentieth century.