Brushes & Paint

The industrial revolution brought new
materials & tools to artisans...

An early American painter had to make his own paint. His choice of pigments was limited and availability was inconsistent. As the decades passed, more supplies became available. The first engines were simple bright colors. As more pigments became available, color schemes turned to the mixed colors being used on carriages. Often the wheels and running gear were a common cheaper color and the body was a contrasting rarer color.

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In 1800 the only chemically created pigments available in America were vermilion red, chrome yellow and Prussian blue. The hand tub above is Prussian blue. Farm vehicles were often painted a blue made from lead white and Prussian blue. Thomas Jefferson used chrome yellow for the interior walls of his house shown to the left. It was a hard pigment that held up well on wheels. Pigment was mixed with varnish to make paint back then. The first coats were mostly color and the last coats were just varnish.

    American vermilion was a cheap bright red, often used for hand engines. English and Chinese vermilion were expensive purer versions of the same pigment, and very bright. The imports could cost 35 times as much as the American product. English vermilion was often used for pin-stripes and corner decorations on engines painted black, yellow, purple, fawn, olive or other colors. Many of these pigments are highly poisonous and not in use today.

    In 1868 at fire engine factories the paint was mixed daily from varnish, lead, spirits, linseed oil and pigments. Varnish with white or red lead was the most waterproof paint available at that time. Each pigment color 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 !!!
a leaf of Gold .02

    Gold appears on American fire engines early and constantly through history. It represented the preciousness of the lives saved. It reflected the flames at a fire and could appear as fire itself. It gave an eternal quality to the apparatus, as if it was made for the ages. It represented the firemen's untarnished commitment to their neighbors. It showed the engine to be of value and importance to the community.

    Here is the kit of a traveling painter working in 1915. There are custom specialty tools, patterns for corner designs, books of gold, water transfer decals, clip art, bronze powder and more. There are brushes for lettering, striping, stenciling and gilding. Brushes came as just hair in a ferrel, and you made your own handle. On many small brushes the ferrel was made from the quill end of a bird feather. Now they use a plastic tube. Sizes were often described by bird names rather than numbers.

    Mechanized lithography lead to many new products in the mid 1800's. Water transfer decals became popular immediately. Charles Palm made transfer ornaments designed for vehicles. He brought Italian lithographers to Cincinnati Ohio. They drew what they saw on local vehicles as well as what they had been painting in the old country. The decals used 22 karat gold leaf and full color printing.
    The results were amazing, brilliant colors blending on a gold ground. Now the guy who gilded the stripes on the engine could stick on some corner decalcomanies. The hand ornamenters were out of luck with many fire engine factories. Shaded gold lettering could be bought through the mail by the letter.

All photos, artwork and information are copyrighted by Peter Achorn and Fire Gold.  © 1999-2015 all rights reserved.
Any perceived copyright infringements are unintentional and will be removed upon request.