How to Choose Historic Paint Colors

by Candice Whitlow

Taking on a fixer-upper is very exciting, but let’s face it, we all want to see instant results! Don’t we all wish we could live in the world of reality TV, where your renovation is completed by a large team in a half an hour? Unfortunately, that’s never the case (sigh)! However, there is one project that can be done in a day and totally changes the look and feel of your home. It’s time to grab a drop cloth, a roller and some brushes — we’re about to get painting!


I adore the bright colors of the homes in Charleston, SC.


Who couldn’t love a bright yellow Italianate house? Photo by Hartford Daily Photo.

If you’re like me, you want your home to be a reflection of your personality but you also want to keep it historically accurate. When you walk into the home improvement store to pick your paint, you find a large rainbow of colors to choose from. Maybe you’re wondering if it would be more historical to go bold or keep it subtle. Personally, I think there is a big misconception about what paint colors were like way back when. I think many of us picture the past in black and white because of what we see in old movies and photos, but in reality color has always been a bold presence in historical homes. In fact, before the advent of electricity, many homes (especially Victorians) were painted bright colors inside that would look garish under today’s bright lightbulbs!
Check out this old paint samples! So much color!

Historic paint swatches, courtesy of

If none of these colors suit you, many paint companies are jumping on the old house bandwagon (Yay!) to make color selection a lot easier. Valspar has partnered up with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and now has the Valspar Historic Trust Collection, which contains over 250 historic colors documented from across the country (How’s that for variety?) Sherwin-Williams also offers an historical collection that breaks it down by the style and decade of your home. Whether it’s the strong, masculine olives and pewters for your arts and crafts bungalow, or if you’re looking for that perfect shade of turquoise to tie in with the boomerang countertop in your mid-century home, it’s easy to find the right color.

Don’t be afraid of color!

Remember to prep your walls first before you paint. Fill in nail holes from old pictures and make sure the room is free of cob webs and dirt. After you clean and patch any nail holes, you will need to prime your walls. If you had any water damage this will keep it from seeping through your color, as well as give you a more even coat. After that dries you are ready to pop open those cans of paint and start making your historic home your own.
Tell me, do YOU have a favorite historic plaint color?


As CIRCA’s resident old house restoration expert, Candi has lived her whole life in fixer-uppers. Her love for old houses stems from growing up in Doniphan MO, where there is an old house on every corner and the roots of her family tree run deep. She currently manages her father’s company, BARCO Construction and Design. Candi is on the board of the Doniphan Neighborhood Assistance Program and has worked closely with the City of Doniphan Historic Preservation Commission, documenting the city’s historic downtown buildings. She devotes most of her spare time to restoring her 1920s cottage-style bungalow that she shares with her husband Jake and their two dogs Rowdy and Mac.


  • ethan1234

    This is a topic that tons of historic home owners grapple with, just check out the amount of topics on Houzz on this.

    We are buying a small little 1940’s cape that is yellow and I would love to be able to paint it, but I would love to find the original paint color of the outside. How would i go about finding that out? Maybe peel a bit back? I don’t even have any b&w photos to compare…

    • Candice Whitlow

      Peeling with a paint scraper will help with your dilemma. If need be, take some paint stripper to an area if you can’t get through all of the layers. You should be able to find the original color hiding somewhere. Happy Restoring!


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