logo - Join me in the 1900s early C20th
Florence Cole as a child

Painting a ceiling in
the early and mid 1900s

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In then early to mid 1900s ceilings i all houses were 'whitewashed' to keep them white. There was no emulsion paint, at least not for ordinary people.

Painting ceilings was always such a bother, and it was normally the job of the man of the house.

What is whitewash?

Whitewash is a low-cost type of paint made from slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and chalk (whiting). Various other additives are also used.


To start with, ceilings had to be washed before applying the whitewash. This was because old whitewash tended to flake off and the flakes had to be removed before fresh whitewash was applied. Just imagine how a man had to contort his body to do this. It necessarily meant standing on a tall chair or a step ladder and rubbing forcefully where he could reach at arm's length, keeping his arm above his head. Then when one small area of ceiling had been washed, he had to come down and move the chair or step ladder to repeat the process on another small area of ceiling. There was no way to stop the dirty water running down his arm.

Then the whitewash had to be made up by mixing it with water.

Neither were there rollers for applying the whitewash. It had to be painted on with a large brush. Brushes drip. So as much cold white liquid ran down his outstretched arm as ended up on the ceiling - not to mention his having to cope with keeping his aching arm above the head and repeatedly having to get down to move the chair or step ladder.

There were dust sheets but no waterproof plastics. So the whole room had to be cleared before starting, including any mats or rugs, and there were always splashes on the floor to be cleaned off.

If you can add anything to this page, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.