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Jobs in the Home, early-mid 20th Century

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Painting a ceiling with old-style whitewash

By the webmaster’s mother, 1906-2002

In the past before the development of emulsion paint, ceilings in all houses were 'whitewashed' to keep them white.

Painting ceilings was always a major bother. As you read on, you will understand why.

What whitewash is

Whitewash was made from slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and chalk (whiting). with other additives, and it was relatively cheap.

When I was a child, early in the 20th Century, there was no emulsion paint, so whitewash was all there was for keeping ceilings looking clean, particularly as the soot and grime from coal fires made them dirty so quickly.

Whitewash was bought as a powder and had to be made up for use as paint by mixing it with water. Possibly later it may have been sold ready made up, but with the development of emulsion paint, there wasn't much call for it.

Preparing the room

Although we did have dust sheets but there were no waterproof plastics. So the whole room had to be cleared before starting, including ornaments, pictures, mats and rugs. The venetian blinds also had to be taken down. From today's point of view, this may seem excessive, but read on and you will understand.

Preparing the room was the task for the women of the house.

Washing the ceiling before painting and why this was necessary

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. This was the job of the man of the house because it needed strength and endurance.

Just imagine how the 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.

The painting process

Aching arms didn't finish once the ceiling was washed.

There were no rollers for applying the whitewash. It had to be painted onto the ceiling with a large brush. Brushes drip. So as much of the cold white liquid ran down the man's outstretched arm as ended up on the ceiling, not to mention the splashes on the floor. Throughout he had to cope with keeping his aching arm above the head and repeatedly getting down to move the chair or step ladder.

Clearing up the room

Afterwards the cleaning up began, but this was a task for the women of the house. The numerous splashes had to be scrubbed off the floor and, once dry, the various mats, rugs, ornaments and blinds had to be replaced.

Using up leftover whitewash

If there was any unused whitewash, the man used it on a wall somewhere the looked as if it would benefit - walls being easier to paint than ceilings. Inside the house, walls were wallpapered, not whitewashed; whitewashed walls were in places like inside the outside lavatory and the garden shed. Afterwards he had to clean his brushes.


If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.


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