How Durable Were Housepaints in the 1880's?

Where I live, there are many Victorian style houses. Most of these were built in the decades from 1860-1900.
In restoring them, people are trying to reproduce the colors used in this time.
My question: how durable were the exterior paints made them-were houses commonly repainted every 5-6 years? Or were the paints fragile 9compared to those made now).

Barn paint was often made by mixing whole milk & rust.

Supposedly, it lasted a while.

The basic two factors affectin how durable a paint is are:

  1. adhesion - how well does it stick to the surface
  2. Colour fastness

Paints from that era were generally a mix of resins and linseed oil (And pigments - we’ll get to those later), although other oils were often used. Applied correctly they actually weathered/held up quite well, assuming nothing was interfering (Abrasion/ friction, subsurface deterioration, severe weather, high heat, or chemicals with solvent actions would all casue them to break down more quickly)

The pigments, OTH, varied by colour and composition. Most blues faded fairly quickly, although some very durable/light resistant copper and cobalt compounds were made. Generally the darker the blue, the less durable it was, they would either fade to gray or turn a sort of sickly green.
Reds were actually more durable than modern red tints, because they used various salts of mercury. Thats why we joke about eating paint chips.
Lead oxides provided a lot of whites, greys, and some light yellows that were fairly permanent.
Whites were obtained from chalks and white clay, and titanium oxide was beginning to be used.
Greens were either very dark, or very light. most midrange greens were hard to make permament against fading.
Iron oxides provided browns, yellows and dull orange shades.

I have actually assisted in restoration research on old houses, and one place to check is the undersides of places. you can see what the opriginal colours were if you are carefull, because these areas did not get weathered, scraped, or even painted over as much as front surfaces.

Good luck.

Here is an excellent article that gives in-depth coverage of the topic of house paint.

Funderburg, Anne Cooper. “PAINT WITHOUT PAIN”. Invention & Technology Magazine Spring 2002.

No, the author doesn’t get around to a direct answer to your question, but it’s a good article.

You live in Massachusetts like I do right? I am not an expert on this subject but I did restore a circa 1760 house which is much older than you are describing but had paint applied during every era. Barn red paint like our house and many others in New England are coated with aren’t true paints. They are various mixtures of oil and common pigments like rust that are more like a thick stain. They penetrate and seal the wood for an extremely long time and build up over repeated treatments. They aren’t fragile and wood repeatedly treated with them can literally last for hundreds of years as long as the treatment is consistent. Thick stains tend to slowly fade rather than flake like some paints do. You have to do a lot of heavy sanding to get back to unstained wood.

That is just one of several common types used in New England during that era. You can also look up milk paint for a common type of homemade paint with with many vintage looking lighter shades. Milk paint isn’t that durable however.

Soured milk, usually. And they also added linseed oil.
You had to air it out well, but it supposedly lasted a long time. Milk has casein in it, which is a prime constituent in glues.

Plenty of lead oxide too.