The Story of Milk Paint

As Old As Time Itself

Ancient wisdom declares, "There is nothing new under the sun" and that truth holds firm in the case of paint. Used by mankind for millennia, first as a method of decoration and then as a form of protective coating, paint has been found on cave drawings and paintings from 8,000 years ago. The milk, lime, and earth pigments were mixed to produce paint for all manners of coverage. When King Tut's tomb was opened in 1924, the artifacts inside were found to have been painted with milk paint.

All Ingredients Were Natural, Non-Toxic

Simple to make and easy to use, milk paint was the major tool used to decorate and preserve surfaces through the centuries. Over time, different recipes emerged using milk protein (casein), lime, and pigment each with varying levels of durability. Some of these new recipes yielded a covering that provided weatherproofing, and others just disintegrated, leaving only permanent stain behind. Other substances like olive or linseed oil, eggs, waxes or animal glue were added and eventually combinations were discovered that created a durable coating that lasted indefinitely.

And, Then Came The Renaissance...Poisons Abound

Oil paints were part of the Renaissance period and a Flemish artist named Jan van Eyck created and used a good oil-based paint around the beginning of the 15th century. He established a varnish that was stable and used as a pigment binder in oil paints. Later, the Italian masters improved upon the paint and began adding lead oxide to the mix to improve its durability and longevity.

For the following two or three centuries, milk paint and oil paint remained relatively unchanged in their basic recipes, with milk paint being made in the way it always had been, and oil paint mixtures becoming heavily guarded secrets. After the Civil War in the US, in 1868, a patent was secured for the first tin can with a sealing lid. This meant that paint could be mass produced, canned, and shipped all over the country. Oil paints did well in this context. However, milk paints could not be packaged and shipped in cans because milk paint, made from natural milk protein, would spoil under these conditions-just like milk. Consequently, until 1935, the only paint commercially sold was oil-based paints, which contained lead, mildewcide, and other poisons to preserve it. Milk paint, in its pure form, became redundant.

The Wake Up Call

After the Second World War researchers, working for paint producers, began to develop new and different paint formulas. At the same time, the population of the US began to gain an ever-expanding awareness of the dangers of lead and mercury in paint. The fact that paint, solvents, and stains, contained high levels of toxic material caused major concern and by the early 1970s, consumers began to take serious action to force change in American products.

Today, the use of lead and mercury in paint has been outlawed, as have many of the dangerous solvents that were so commonplace. The Green Movement has made strong headway in educating the consuming public, which has in turn opened the door to the old way of doing things. We appear to have come full circle.