Paint — the group of emulsions generally consisting of pigments suspended in a liquid medium for use as decorative or protective coatings — made its earliest appearance about 30,000 years ago. Cave dwellers used crude paints to leave behind the graphic representations of their lives that even today decorate the walls of their ancient rock dwellings.
The paint and coatings industry, however, had to wait for the Industrial Revolution before it became a recognized element of the American national economy. The first recorded paint mill in America was reportedly established in Boston in 1700 by Thomas Child. A century and a half later, in 1867, D.R. Averill of Ohio patented the first prepared or “ready mixed” paints in the United States.
In the mid-1880s, paint factories began springing up in population and industrial centers across the nation. Mechanization was making the manufacturing process accessible to a larger and less specialized group of entrepreneurs. The weight of prepared paint makes it expensive to transport, so a decentralized structure of small manufacturers in discrete markets dominated the industry until the mid-1900s.
Besides mechanizing and professionalizing the paint industry, the Industrial Revolution also created vast new markets for paints and coatings. Virtually every product created on an assembly line — from the Model T Ford to the latest-model television — makes extensive use of paints and coatings to beautify, protect and extend the life of the manufactured goods.
Many of today’s paints and coatings may go unnoticed by the consumer, but play immeasurably valuable roles in delivering high-quality foodstuffs, durable goods, housing, furniture and thousands of other products to market. Total sales for the industry were approximately $22 billion in 2014.
As soon as the impact and potential risks of various paint components have been quantified, paint manufacturers take action. Historically, the industry readily responded to environmental and health concerns by altering the chemistry of its products to control risks. Paint manufacturers started replacing lead pigments in some paints, for example, before World War II, when safer alternatives became available.
Industry consensus standards limiting the use of lead pigments date back to the 1950s, when manufacturers led a voluntary effort to remove lead from house paints. Common house paints have contained little, if any, lead since then. In 1978, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of lead in consumer paint.
Contemporary paints and coatings consist of countless compounds uniquely formulated to fulfill the varied requirements of hundreds of thousands of applications. “Paint” ranges from the broad group of environmentally-sound latex paints that many consumers use to decorate and protect their homes and the translucent coatings that line the interior of food containers, to the chemically-complex, multi-component finishes that automobile manufacturers apply on the assembly line.
However you look at it, paints and coatings have evolved from the simple Early Man colors on cave walls into a primary protective barrier between our possessions and our environment.