With our research question in mind, in 2015, 2016, and 2017, paint samples were extracted from the front parlor woodwork. Using microscopy, or examination under a high-powered microscope, 15 paint layers were identified in the most complete paint samples. (A set of successive paint layers is also referred to as a stratigraphy). In addition, some of the samples were tested for the presence of zinc-white, a pigment found in paints only after 1845. In tandem with the sampling, in-depth documentary research was conducted in order to identify all references related to the room, including paint campaigns. Finally, physical investigation of the panels that were temporarily removed for repair was performed.
The last time that a full-scale restoration was done in the Front Parlor was 1980, at which time it was painted blue. One primary driver of that color choice was documentary interpretation; citing one 1796 letter from William Pearce to George Washington that referenced Washington’s “blue parlour,” for which he was ordering a blue carpet, it was thought that the color referenced the walls. In addition, it was posited that Washington painted the room only twice during his lifetime, once when the paneling was installed circa 1758 and once around the period when the ceiling ornament was installed, between 1784-1787. The 1980 paint analysis, which was a new technology, identified only seven paint layers – compared to the 15 layers found during recent paint sampling. The second layer in the 1980 stratigraphy was blue, which seemed to reinforce the theory about the two paint campaigns. Thus, the room was painted blue.
A different conclusion, however, was reached based upon the synthesis of the 2015-2017 paint sampling, documentary research, and physical investigation. More advanced technology not only identified more paint layers, but the updated stratigraphy revealed that there were actually five layers prior to the presence of blue. So, the first instance of blue came in at layer six. The majority of these pre-blue layers were variations of a stone color. While the first four layers contained chemical components consistent with early coatings, zinc-white was found for the first time in layer five, which meant that layer six certainly post-dated 1845.
From a documentary perspective, between 1775 and 1797, there were eight references to either the presence of blue in the front parlor, the blue carpet that was ordered for the room, or the blue furniture that found a home there (including the 1796 reference cited in 1980). Seven of the eight references associated the color blue with the carpet or furniture, but never the wall color. The remaining reference did not specifically mention the furnishings or wall color. (There were many other 18th-century references to the room, but they did not mention color.) Further, documents suggest that the room was likely painted three, if not four, times during the Washingtons’ residence. At the very least, it would have been painted when the wood paneling was first installed circa 1760, in the late-1780s when the ceiling ornament was installed and in 1797 when the entire house underwent a refresh; it is also possible that it was painted again during the mid-1770s after alterations to the paneling. Thus, the evidence precluded blue as the 1799 wall color. Learn More