by Shannon Browning-Mullis, Curator of History and Decorative Arts
Have you ever wondered how we determine what the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters looked like in the 1820s and 1830s?
As you might expect, we use a variety of sources to inform the interpretation, including archival records like receipts or letters, examination of physical evidence, and comparisons to other contemporary sites. One of the most useful and complicated tools at our disposal is paint analysis.
Over the years, we’ve used the results of paint analysis to restore the drawing room, dining room, family dining room, butler’s pantry, and center hall of the house to their early decorative schemes, including elaborate faux finishes. But until recently, we hadn’t conducted thorough examinations of the finishes in the Slave Quarters.
When I came to Telfair Museums seven years ago, I was fascinated by the “Haint Blue” paint in the Slave Quarters. I was told that the paint was manufactured and applied by the first people to live in the building after its construction. It was said to be made of buttermilk, lime, and indigo and to block the entry of evil spirits.
Several times over the years, I’ve questioned how we know what this paint meant to the people who lived here, and I’ve gone in search of answers. I haven’t found any documentary evidence that confirms that blue paint was used in this way in the early 19th century. Of course, many details of the lives of enslaved people went undocumented, so that isn’t surprising in itself.
With a lack of academic evidence, we turned to physical investigation to substantiate our haint blue paint story. After consulting with the foremost paint analyst in the country, I can say a few things for certain and speculate on a few more.
The paint in this space is not composed of buttermilk or indigo. There are about 10 layers of paint on the ceiling. Only one layer (in a few spaces two) is blue. These are the newest finishes. The blue pigment is ultramarine, which was available beginning in the 1830s. The finish borders conform to the original room borders, meaning that the paint was applied before the building was converted to apartments. So: the blue finishes on the ceiling date to roughly between 1830-1900, but probably the later end due to the multiple (9) tan or white coats that precede the blue. All of the earlier finishes were tan or white. There is no way for us to know if the blue finish that was applied had any spiritual significance.
This seems like a letdown to many of us who believed we were protecting and sharing an artifact sacred to a group of people who left little physical evidence behind. But our real mission is to learn about those people’s lives and share them with the public. Every new piece of evidence we expose brings the people enslaved here into fuller detail. Who knows what we’ll find next?