In 1974, the Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company began reformulating paint, resulting in the production of all natural, historically correct paint, in 20 colors.
Forty years ago, the company’s founder, Charles Thibeau, was involved in Boston’s first Earth Day, having just published one of the country’s earliest sourcebooks of environmental resources with his nonprofit group, the National Foundation for Environmental Control. His daughter, Anne Thibeau, today the company’s president, was 14, and to help support the cause, she sold “daisy buttons” proclaiming “Give Earth a Chance” at Boston’s Park Street subway entrance.
A few years later, Charles kept his commitment to the environment when he recreated an ancient formula for natural milk paint to be used in his newest venture of making reproduction furniture. Milk paint, a homemade, long lasting paint made on the spot using local ingredients, was the finish of choice for many early colonists wanting to add color in their homes.
But milk paint’s roots are far more ancient than colonial America, dating to King Tut’s tomb and the 20,000-year-old cave paintings in Lascaux, France.
Basement experiments resulted in the perfect mixture of crushed limestone, milk protein, clays and earth pigments. The colonists would have used skim milk or buttermilk, but Charles chose to use the basic protein (casein) in a powder form so the paint ingredients could be saved and simply mixed with water when he was ready to paint.
Yankee Magazine was producing a series of books on the “forgotten arts” in the 1970s (e.g. how to build a stone wall) and wanted to include a chapter on making paint from scratch. They heard about Charles’ experiments and called him for an interview. When the book came out, his phone never stopped ringing.
Fast forward 36 years. The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company has over 400 dealers in the U.S. alone, and several more distributors worldwide, including in Canada, the U.K., Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, Thailand and Korea. The carbon footprint of shipping paint in powder form is much smaller than of commercial paint, because the company is shipping powder, not water. It also allows them to package paint without toxic preservatives, keeping the paint as pure as when the colonists mixed up their homemade versions on the back porch.
Charles, who has passed away, provided that his daughter Anne would take the company’s helm. Anne knew there was more potential for milk paint than just for furniture and other porous surfaces for which it was developed. People were looking for a safe alternative to the many toxins found in today’s paint.
Anne led the way for another round of research and development to create a new line of milk paint that would have the same needed adhesion and the same luminescent quality for which the original formula is known, but suitable for previously painted walls and new drywall. After much experimentation, the new SafePaint was born, another example of something old brought back to deal with a modern problem.
Today the products made by the Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company have been featured in countless publications and on the Martha Stewart show. They have received the USDA biobased certificate.
The lesson here is that it’s never too late to relearn old tricks. Sometimes, turning back the clock brings us forward to exactly what we need.
Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company
P.O. Box 222
436 Main St., Groton