Peeling old white paint off a door

The Long History of Lead White Paint

Lead white paint in everyday life and the illnesses that it created.

Lead has been used in painting in one way or another; either in fine art, makeup or interior design. Lead is a metal that has a low heating point and can be easily formed or smelted into different shapes.

The lead was used in making sculptures vibrant and radiate. The metal was once called Plumbum which means lead in Latin. This is also considered to be one of the oldest pigments.

In the 4th century, the Greeks and Romans were using this metal for pipes, art and residential development. The lead did not corrode like iron and steel when in contact with water and it did not require protective paint. When air combines with the metal, its oxides the lead which appeared to be a dull grey colour (pewter). Underneath the film, it was a bright shiny bluish-white metal.

Throughout history, there were multiple times that people were just poisoning themselves with lead. People would have had undiagnosed nerve illnesses, severe headaches, kidney problems, blood pressure problems, pains and death. The lead would get stored within bones and teeth that accumulate over time. The lead would affect people differently because of age or usage. In children, the lead would affect their body development. Lead is extremely harmful to children and it can cause lowered mental capacity and IQ. They would get lead poisoning from contact with lead either from touch, inhalation or digestion. Lead poisoning is completely preventable.

The lead was usually used as a base coat and/or an accent colour in paintings. Painters would use lead white paint to create more vibrant paintings. Lead white was used in multiple types of artworks from the 4th to 19th century. Painters would use this metal to create vibrant whites for their works. Lead has compounds that are very dense in colour. They are also durable and reliable as a compound to use to paint a variety of things. The red and yellow oxidations of lead were used for decoration purposes but the white lead made a very durable white paint that has been purposely exploited throughout history. This has been manufactured by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Chinese. This white is used so often because of the ease of use when applying the paint onto items. Some might find it smooth and blends well with other colours for gradations and colour combinations. Others might like the colour of white lead gives.

There were two types of well-known lead white paints.

The lead was treated in the stacking process. This was also called the Dutch process after the country of origin, Holland. This was the metal placed in earthen pots with vinegar, stacked with natural products (cow waste, bark or leaves) to fermentation for a month. The lead would be covered with a copper crust on top of the lead then scraped off to produce the compound colour known as Flake White. This was a warm white pigment that dried quickly and importantly was available and very durable.

Cremitz white is made with lead carbonates and blended with safflower oil. It dries slower but has less of a tendency to yellow. It can be used for sculptural effects but is terrible for underpainting because it will crack and distort over time. This type of paint has a stringy consistency. Cremitz white was a favourite white for painters in the Renaissance era. The paint originally came from Kormeriz, a Slovak town under the Hapsburgs.

Flake Lead White HEX code F9F4F9

Painters started to develop an illness called painter’s colic (lead colic) which is now known as severe lead poisoning. The painters would have convulsions, shaking and coughing based on being around their work. The diagnoses of painter’s colic were neurosis, paralysis, convulsions, lesions and mania. They would also feel intestinal pains and spasms. Death seldom happened if treated. The effects of lead and other heavy metals were known to practitioners and their analyses of symptoms were well documented as debilitating lead poisoning. Artists and house painters would contract this disease from lead by using the paint in unsafe conditions and infrequent matters. The treatments of painter’s colic until the 1880s were narcotics, alcohol and purgatives.

Lead whites can still be purchased today but it’s now more expensive and well known as an unsafe colour to use for artwork.

Other uses of lead paint pin fashion

Venetian Ceruse (aka Spirits of Saturn) was a popular loose powder makeup in the Elizabethan era that men and women would use to apply it onto their faces. People would put lead-based makeup on their skin to look paler. This was to represent that they never had to go into the fields to work therefore they never had to become tan from the sunlight. This look was mostly about looking rich, noble and delicate. This made them look more porcelain. Pale skin, bright eyes, rosy cheeks, red lips and fair hair were the desired look in the Elizabethan era. A modern reference to this desired look would be Snow White. They would cake on the layers of makeup to achieve their desired look. The makeup created a terrible cycle of causing more problems than fixing. The makeup would dry up moisture on the skin and irritate the face. Then people would apply thicker amounts of makeup to cover up the blemishes and rashes because lead was corrosive. People used this makeup for a long time causing hair loss, deteriorating mental condition and muscle paralysis. Their skin would turn yellow, red or green from the lead oxidation on their skin. And they would even die from overexposure. This makeup contained cerussite which was a type of lead carbonate that caused the skin to go whiter. People who wore this makeup were aware of the dangers of putting lead onto their face for fashion but they did not care. This was also the rise of the beauty mark to cover up any blemishes on people’s faces.

Elizabeth I, Queen of England
Elizabeth I, Queen of England By Unknown artist, 1575-95

Queen Elizabeth was a Tudor House monarch was speculated of dying from lead poisoning due to the Venetian Ceruse she wore often.

As a side note (since this is not about the colour being used), people consumed lead acetate. It was a popular sweetener that a lot of people consumed daily. This was converted to candy that made food sweet. This was also used in sweetened wine like sapa from the Romans. Aristocrats use to drink two litres of this alcohol daily which led to lead poisonings, such as organ failure, infertility and dementia.

Lead acetate is still in use today in our hair colour products. Using products with lead acetate in hair colour products can cause numbness and sensations in the areas where it was applied. The ingredients of the lead compound are always listed on the packages.

The lead was still used in products in the 20th century in medicine and in residential development.

In traditional medicines, like Ayurvedic medicine, base their medicines on metals like copper, gold, sulphur, arsenic and lead. Ayurveda is from India to treat a large spectrum of ailments, from headaches to cancer. These medicines have can cause lead poisoning and can cause more problems with fertility, abdominal pain and fatigue. Ayurvedic medicine is from the same period of Ancient Roman and Egyptian times.

In 1978, lead paint in the home was banned. It was no longer used in house paint. Poor developmental and lifetime medical problems were the reasons why most countries refuse to use lead in products where vulnerable people might contact it. Before it was banned house paint that contained lead for durability. The lead white paint was also very cheap to use. It was cheap to manufacture and most people who painted their between the Elizabethan age to the 1970s had walls that might have used paint containing lead. When it chipped, peeled off the walls, applied the paint on areas and was used for construction on lead paint was harmful to people in contact with the paint. But just being in contact with the paint was terrible enough.

In 1914 – 1920, it was documented that children were going into convulsions and seizures because of lead paint. Some companies wanted to still advertise that their product was not the cause of their ailments but friendly and reliable. Dutch Boy was created to advertise to families that their white lead paint was safe. There were toys, paint books for children, advertisements saying that their lives are now better with Dutch Boy paint. From dark and gloomy to happy and cheery because of paint.

Dutch Boy Take Away Booklet
Dutch Boy Take Away Booklet showcasing the history, use and types of lead white paint available from Dutch Boy.

When it was used in households, lead paint caused various types of mental developmental problems and lead poisoning among the people living in these places. Owners of these houses can test for lead themselves, ask a professional to test the paint in their homes or send paint chips through the mail to a lab. People can also remove lead paint from their homes.

Lead paint is still used in large production jobs and manufacturing doing industrial coating or on metalwork like automotive and bridges. These people are more likely to suffer from lead poisoning. Workers may wear protective gear and use HVAC systems when they are painting but the danger of lead is still there.

Lead has a long history of the arts to architecture. But lead poisoning should have stopped as soon as a problem was discovered. Lead is used now in batteries and electrical installations. Lead is no longer in most everyday products people consume or purchase. Lead in paint has been widely faded out of use. Occasionally, lead might appear on some products but that is rare and in comparison of time not as rampant as before.

Is lead white really worth the health risk for durability? No, there are so much different types of paint that can substitute for the paint with minimal health risks involved. There are imitation white paints that mimic white paint perfectly and should be considered. Lead white was used because of three factors, availability, durability and making other colours pop when applied with it. The development of topcoats and better materials made lead white replaceable but some people still prefer it over the competition.


Corrosion Doctors – Lead in History
WHO – Lead Poisoning and health
Elizabethan Costume – Elizabethan Makeup 101
Cleopatra’s Boudoir – Venetian Ceruse
Painting Perceptions – The Great Lead White Shortage
Today’s Homeowner – Dangers of Lead Paint in Your Home

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