Pigments & Colors

There were new colors to paint with
in the 19th century.

Colonial carriage painters dug up clay for earth colors like brown, yellow and red ocher. Colors came from rocks, metals, roots, berries &c, which needed to be crushed or cooked or buried in jars to make pigments. Some dry pigments were purchased in envelopes from an apothecary or trade supplier. The pigment was coarse and needed to be mulled, ground in oil, and added to varnish to make paint. Mulling of certain colors took two to three hours to complete. New paint was made each morning, early, by the apprentice. The first coats were mostly color and the last coats were just varnish. In 1816 the only synthetically created pigments available in America were vermilion red, chrome yellow and Prussian blue. These were the brightest colors and they were used to paint fire engines. Mixes of these colors were also used, like Brunswick Green, made from chrome yellow and Prussian blue.

Minium is red lead found in nature. The color varies depending on what minerals it was crated with. It was used in cave paintings and by every culture that found it. By the middle ages it was made by the Alchemists. They took white scrapings from lead sheets and heated them in a furnace. The result was a brighter, purer minium. This pigment was used in illuminated books. The name Minium comes from the same root as "miniatures". Indian and Persian miniatures used this pigment to great effect.

Below are the pigments available in 1560 Europe.

The mineral pigments took long periods of time to mull to the proper size particles. This was a job for the apprentice. Each pigment acted differently when being mulled or drying or flowing off the brush tip.

Red lead was used in primer paints and to extend a more expensive pigment. The most waterproof paint available in the 19th century was varnish mixed with red or white lead. This was the paint base for anything that would be outdoors. The painter picked the pigment for the color desired and the particular type of varnish for the use of the object being painted.

Venetian Red, or Tuscan Red is powdered hematite, which is iron ore. Jewelers rouge is pure powdered hematite. Natural hematite was used in cave painting, like minuim. The Newsham fire engine above, built 1744-1765, was painted in London with Venetian Red. Deposits of hematite were found in the colonies, and that pigment was named Indian Red. When hematite occurs naturally with clay, the colors range from yellow to red to brown. These are the yellow and red Ochers, used a great deal in the 1700s. Each site where Ochers are found produces a unique shade. Ochers are composed of silica and clay tinted with iron oxide. All ochers made good primers since they took in more oil than most pigments when mulled. This extra oil made for a tougher film of paint. Synthetic iron oxide pigment, called Mars Red, was available by 1850. Painters of fire engines had left the Ochers behind by then, they had other new reds to use.

Cinnabar was a toxic mineral found in Spain and imported to Europe from China. It was the main source of Mercury in earlier times. Above is a Cinnabar deposit in southwestern U.S.A. In a purer form it is a translucent crystal. About 200 AD the alchemists found they could make Cinnabar by cooking Mercury (that they got from Cinnabar) with Sulfur. The process created deadly gases but the result was a non-toxic black lump. As pieces of the lump were ground in oil, the oil turned red. The longer it was mulled, the more orange it became.

Around 700 AD this first man-made pigment, Vermilion was available. It was even richer than Cinnabar and soon replaced it in manuscript illumination. It was made by mixing "brimstone powder with quicksilver". This red was used in murals uncovered in Pompeii. Just as the early American artists used symbols and devices from Pompeii, they also used Vermilion red on their parade shirts and fire engines. It was the brightest red available for 1000 years. By 1750 commercially made vermilion was available in small envelope packets in the colonies.

American Vermilion was a cheap bright red by 1815, often used for hand engines. It was a lower purity Vermilion pigment with perhaps a little red lead or Ocher added. English and Chinese Vermilion were expensive purer versions of the same pigment, and very bright. It was toxic to produce and non-toxic as a pigment. The imports could cost 35 times as much as the American product. English Vermilion was often used for thin lines and corner decorations on hand engines in the 1800s. Many of these original pigments were highly poisonous and are not in use today.

Cochineal was a pigment imported from the Spanish colonies to make a red called Carmine. Only gold and silver were more valuable exports from the Spanish colonies to Europe in the 1500s. Spain had a monopoly for over 200 years on the pigment that made a vivid dye and a rich, deep paint. All the Carmine fabric in the colonies was imported. Only small amounts of the mysterious dye were allowed in the colonies. It was used to color lemonade, leather, almonds and wine. The British officers coats were carmine.

The western world was shocked to find that Cochineal was dried bugs... specifically a scale insect Dactylopius Coccus. The tiny insects were raised on prickly pear cactus, mostly in present day Mexico. When the cactus bore its red fruit, the females ate it and turned an exceptional shade of red. The Aztecs, Mayas and Incas traded cochineal, which they valued with gold. Large plantations bred the cactus and insects into an efficient industry. It took 70,000 insects to make a pound of dye.

When carmine was added to varnish it made a transparent coating that let the color below show through. Vermilion was opaque and made a perfect under-coat. Vermilion was a warm light red, almost orange and quite different from carmine red, with its hint of blue. On a curved surface the part closest to the viewer would be warmer and lighter. As the surface curved away, one was looking through a thicker section of glaze, and the color turned darker and cooler. When a person walked around the vehicle, light surfaces would darken and dark areas would lighten. This effect was very popular and expensive. Only a few carriages in a city would have a carmine paint job, and only the fire engine would have gold stripes and scrolls on a carmine ground. The varnish on original paint jobs has darkened over time and the Carmine glaze is no longer as translucent. This effect is hard to see many times on fire engines in museums. This same two-color glaze technique was also done in greens and blues.

The public's love of this color in the 1860s made it the dominant color for fire engines. This was when city fire companies were getting their first steam fire engines. These vehicles were built in large factories. The factory paint shops could handle the complex glazing process more efficiently than a small paint shop. Working on several engines at the same time saved materials, time and money. After the Civil War "fire engine red" became this rich complex color, not the light red of earlier Vermilion engines. A common procedure was to paint the entire engine Vermilion, which was cheap, and then glaze only the body with Carmine. The wheels would ware out first and need repainting with no complicated glazing necessary. This color scheme of a dark red body over lighter red wheels and running gear was used on hand tubs, steamers and motorized engines up to 1940.

In the 1880s a synthetic Carmine pigment, Alizarin Crimson, was available. By 1890 most of the cochineal plantations in Mexico were abandoned. The Carmine red color remained popular through the 1940s, but now it was not a glaze over a vermilion under painting. Alizarin Crimson was opaque enough to cover better than Carmine.

In 1976 Red Dye #2 was banned by by the FDA from food products. Cochineal production started again as a non-toxic food dye named E120 or Red Dye #4. It is the only natural red food coloring authorized by the FDA. It is found in shrimp, sausage, jams, candies, ice cream, juice, yogurt, cakes, pills, cough drops, rouge, lip stick and much more.

Chrome Yellow was available in America by 1818. It was light-fast, tough and water resistant. Mixing Chrome Yellow with some white lead in varnish made a perfect paint for high-ware parts, like wheels. Concord stage coaches often had a Carmine coach on Chrome Yellow wheels. Many early hand engines were yellow or had yellow wheels.

Chrome Yellow was a favorite with Federal style builders and furniture makers. Thomas Jefferson took classical architecture forms and enlarged the molding and frieze details. To this he added Chrome Yellow walls. It is still a bold look today.

Chrome yellow worked well with the gold leaf on a fire engine. When fine line work was done on a dark background near some gold leaf, the lines looked like gold. A modest paint job could have Chrome Yellow scrolls, and they would imply gold.

Prussian Blue was the best blue available starting in 1724. It was a deep dark pigment, slightly green. White lead could be added to get a wide range of tints. It was discovered in 1704 and first used to dye Prussian military uniforms. The pigment was beautiful but unstable. Over time it darked. Pure Prussian Blue eventually turned black. By the late 1800s a synthetic Prussian Blue had been discovered. The color was exotic and beloved in the mid 19th century. Farm and work vehicles were often painted a blue made from lead white and Prussian blue.

The name Ultra-Marine blue meant "from beyond the sea". The pigment was made by grinding a stone from the Far East, Lapis Lazuli, to a powder. It was mined in an unknown location. Ultramarine was the brightest of blues, and for centuries it cost more than gold by weight. It was only used on early fire engines for details in an oil painting. In 1824 a prize was offered for a synthetic ultramarine pigment. Four years later Jean Baptiste Guimet won the prize with his secret formula. Soon after that, a German came up with a different process and the two pigments competed for painters' attention. Both pigments were weak in hue and hard to make. In the end Guimet's was more reliable and "French Ultramarine" became the standard.

By 1830 the pigment was available in America. It was transparent at first and needed to be painted in several coats over a base of Prussian Blue. It took many more years before Ultramarine paint could cover well. As the pigment improved, it overtook Prussian Blue in popularity on vehicles. Gradually blue was used less and less as a body color on fire engines. Both Prussian Blue and Ultramarine were used as accent colors on Carmine red steam engines.

In 1868 at fire engine factories the paint was mixed daily from varnish, powdered lead, mineral spirits, linseed oil and pigments. Each pigment had a separate price per pound:
Red Lead .16
White Lead .16
French Yellow .12
Indian Red .22
Drop Black .25
Paris Green .30
Rose Pink .30
Chrome Yellow .30
Chrome Green .33
Prussian Blue .35
American Vermilion .50
English Vermilion $1.25
Chinese Vermilion $1.50
Ultramarine Blue $2.20
Crimson Lake $10.00
Carmine $17.00
one leaf of Gold .02

The "fancy colors" mentioned above were oil colors in tubes or small cans. These were used for "picking out" thin lines on the rich colored background.

The bright green on this parade hat is Paris Green. It was made with two parts copper and seven parts arsenic. It was toxic to work with. Entire steam fire engines were painted this color. American LaFrance used just a touch of Paris Green on their scrolls. Brunswick Green came from mixing Chrome Yellow and Prussian Blue. By varying the amount of each pigment, many greens could be made. A little green works well with the red, gold and black on most steam fire engines.

"The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most."
         John Ruskin