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vossy

Colour of riverboat paddle wheels?

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Hi all, it seems to me that most colour pictures and models depict the paddle wheels of these vessels to be in various shades of red. Would this have been true in actuality? Also, if it is true would it have been the colour used to signal danger? i.e. don't go near this wheel etc? Would that be the main reason they all seem to be red?

 

Thanks

 

Chris

 

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Here's my understanding. Some of the real experts like Kurt or Roger may well weigh in and correct me if necessary.

 

Red was common in nineteenth-century America because it was one of the cheapest paint colors to produce in the era before modern paint chemistry (along with white). That's one reason it became the standard barn color as well. The fact that most American riverboats were red and white was primarily economic. Red also didn't show staining or dirt as easily as white, which is one reason it was used for decks, wheels, and often for the stern area upon which the wheel threw water and/or the outhouses discharged (such as on Bertrand, below). A white superstructure made the boat look clean and attractive, while a red wheel, stern, and deck were utilitarian. I don't think there was any connotation of danger or warning; there was really no way for a passenger to approach a stern or side wheel, and the boilers were more dangerous anyway.

 

bertrand_24h.jpg

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I would go with a flat barn red or oxide red - same color just different names depending on your source.   Any shade of the oxide red would be good.  Applied over a white primer it will be lighter and over a black primer it would be darker.  No primer - neutral. Absolutely no gloss paint.

Kurt

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Pigments and dyes in a maritime (or nearly so on inland waterways) are always interesting subjects. What was the pigment on New England buildings ? Iron oxide tends to be more yellowish/brownish, rather than bright red as a pigment. The filler in the paint may also change the hue, as would indeed the surface the paint would have been applied to. Any idea about the actual pigments and their sources in the Midwest ?

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I did some research on American paint history, and came up with this narrative. Commercial paints really didn't come onto the market in a widespread fashion until the late 19th century. Before that, paints were hand-mixed (such as on a farm) or at least made in smaller batches locally using grinders. Red was commonly made from a base of linseed oil (produced from flax, a common farm crop), which had an orange tinge. To this was added milk for texture and iron oxide to deepen the color. As a geologist, I agree with Wefalck that iron tends to produce an orange-red rather than a deep brown-red.

 

Several American paint companies offer "historic" collections that were developed with the help of various preservation trusts and other organizations. For example, this collection from Benjamin Moore is supposedly based on 17th-early 20th century colors (i.e. before modern paint chemistry). I was immediately struck by the fact that all of the red shades in this collection do, indeed, have an orange tinge to my eye that fits the narrative about linseed oil and iron oxide. My guess is that their "Audubon Russet" or "Mayflower Red" might be good matches for steamboat red.

 

Given that the vast majority of riverboats in middle America were built on the upper Ohio River, close to extensive sources of iron in the mountains to the east and south as well as extensive sources of milk and flax in the farmlands to the north and west, it makes sense that steamboat red would have followed this palette. But I'm just theorizing based on internet research here, I'm no expert in this regard.

 

EDIT: Mrs. Cathead just asked what I was researching, and pointed out that we have linseed oil, milk (from our dairy goats), and iron oxide (from our bedrock and soils as well as, you know, farm rust) on hand. I may just have to play with mixing up a small batch of "historic" paint to see what I can produce. It'd be pretty neat to color my Arabia with a historically accurate stain.

Edited by Cathead

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As geochemist I always try to dig deeper into these things ... Red is used here in Europe too to paint whole houses or the timbers of half-timbered houses. Particularly the country-houses of Sweden in some regions are known for this. The colour there is known as Falu Röd = the Red from Falun (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falu_red). Falun was one of the big copper-ore producers since the Middle Ages or even before. Apparently, the pigment is derived from the tailings of copper-ore processing and contains finely dispersed iron-oxides, mixed with accesories, such as copper- and zinc-compounds, perhaps also some aluminium-compounds.

The hue of these iron-oxide based pigments depends on the amount of water in the crystal assembledge and, hence, on the amount of firing. Higher temperatures of firing turn yellow ochre into more reddish to brownish ochres. As noted above, the type of binders and fillers further allow to modify the hues.

Unlike these mineral iron-oxyhidroxide pigments that were cheap and are stable in the light, most organic red dyes were expensive and are not so stable.

Edited by wefalck

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Many historic buildings in the US are required to be painted with "historic" paint mixtures. These are expensive, and have a much shorter life than modern paints. Several years ago I worked with an Engineer who owned a farm with Historically Registered buildings. When it came time to repaint, he found it cheaper to sell the farm, and buy another, that had more modern structures!

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I wouldn't necessarily subscribe to the statement that 'historic' paint mixtures have a shorter life than modern mixtures. It always depends on what you are talking about. Mineral paints based on mineral pigments are essentially permanent and form a strong chemical bond with the substrate. For instance, any houses, e.g. in Italy, haven't been painted for centuries and the paint as such remains intact, apart from the general weathering of the surface. Paint on wood is different, as it not normally forms a chemical bond with the wood, but kind of mechanically holds on to it by locking into the surface. 'Modern' and 'historic' seem to have different ageing and weathering behaviour: while old, e.g. lineseed-oil based paints seem to weather over the whole surface, becoming dull and eventually wearing thin and becoming flaky, modern e.g. latex-based paints may have a higher weathering resistance over the surface, but eventually the paint film develops cracks and weathering occurs underneath the paint film, so that it detaches as large flaps.

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John,

 

While I can't speak to whether or not lead-based paints were used, it wouldn't have been to protect from rot or decay. First, only the wheels, and sometimes decks and other parts of the superstructure, were painted red. Hulls were generally white. Rot and decay also wouldn't have been the major concern, both as freshwater is more forgiving and because the lifespan and dangers faced by these boats generally meant that rot and decay weren't likely to be the cause of death (so to speak).

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never imagined this question would get this much airplay and debate. but I thank you all very much for your input into what appears to be a somewhat curious poser by me.

 

Chris

 

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This paint thread reminded me of old discussions about the evolution of how colonial Williamsburg changed it's mind about "historically accurate" paint colors.  Basically, they'd been focusing their color palate on faded paint chips.  More scientific computer analysis brought in brighter colors and context to indoor and outdoor paints.  More info here:  http://makinghistorynow.com/2014/08/a-house-of-a-different-color/

 

Side bar:  There is always the problem of some historic districts with large personalities in charge demanding strict adherence to certain colors.  Until shown, those are inaccurate colors.  Science is dead certain about something...until other science dis-proves it.  ;)

Edited by Deperdussin1910
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Posted (edited)

Australia would have its own sources of red, as well. There's a book I've read about restoring Historic houses, which I believe is in Ballarat library, which has quite a bit on the paint colours available before chemical hues came on the market. But I'd be surprised if lead wasn't the basis of the reds used. The colour is still called red lead. But I don't know if Oz paddlesteamers had red paddles.

 

Steven

Edited by Louie da fly
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Iron oxide pigment was available in the 1700’s and still is used to produce a cheap construction primer.  During my working career it was used as a temporary coating for industrial prefabricated piping that would be insulated after erection on site. It produces the typical “barn red” color.  When the VOC regulations were implemented suppliers were able to produce it as a water based product.  It cost about $14 a gallon gallon compared to $36 for more high tech products.

 

Roger

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