By Tim Bean
Haint blue goes by many other names: pool blue, blue alure, atmospheric, rainwashed, or even Palladian blue (a nod to its use in Southern neoclassical design). All these commercial names rest under the umbrella of a color with a story older than Colonial America.
A keen decorative eye can readily spot haint blue dotted on homes across the country, typically on the ceilings of large, outdoor porches. In the American South it’s more prevalent, liberally applied to window sills, shutters, ceilings, and door frames. To the human eye, this airy, pale shade erases ceilings by mimicking an open sky.
Still popular today, haint blue isn’t only used for its artistic similarity to a blue sky. In modern folklore, this lightest of blues supposedly provides protection against wasps, spiders, and other infestations, apparently tricking the bothersome bugs into believing there is no ceiling for nests and webs, only infinite sky. Is this superstitious bit of trivia true? Yes and no.
While there’s no evidence modern versions of this paint have any repellent qualities for insects, traditional milk paint, (composed of milk, lime, and pigments) might have done just that for haint blue. Once mixed with water, the lye in milk paint binds color into porous surfaces with a mild chemical burn, and lye is a well-known insect repellent. As beautiful as it is, fickle and pricey milk paint is rarely used on homes today, but more common in creating or restoring period furniture.
The color’s original, antebellum (before the Civil War) use wasn’t in repelling insects, but rather ghostly spirits, and here the folk origins of this pleasant blue becomes decidedly unpleasant. Haint blue didn’t originate with American colonists, but sadly arrived with the Atlantic slave trade. Although modern historians differ as to which specific group brought the color and legend, most give credit to the Gullah people, African-Americans that populated the coasts of Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.
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The Gullah people believed haint blue a powerful color, protecting homes by confusing malicious spirits called “haints” with its similarity to open sky or open water, which spirits feared in the Gullah tradition. This belief was first shared with the slave-owning South, then absorbed by it. This color, long-considered a Southern decorative tradition is actually an African tradition.
In a horrifically ironic twist, blue dye itself contributed to the suffering of the Gullah people. True indigo, a bean plant that provided valuable blue dye in early American history, was among the most important cash crops in the South, just behind cotton and tobacco, and its value helped strengthen and perpetuate the slave trade. The color once believed to protect the African people added to their misery in the antebellum South.