In “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” one appendix is devoted to milk paint. As Chris notes there are plenty of milk paint recipes from the 1800s and provides a reference from 1836, “The Painter’s, Guilder’s and Varnisher’s Manuel…” by Henry Carey Baird. I thought 1836 was rather a late date. And I wondered if there was a recipe that was accepted as a standard and when the recipe came into use in America.
In 1774, an updated edition of “L’Art du Peinture, Doreur, Vernisseur” by Watin was published. This book took an orderly approach to the painting arts compared to the many ragtag publications that covered trade secrets that ranged from royal cake recipes to how to do your laundry.
About 20 years later, Antoine-Alexis Cadet de Vaux, a French chemist (and friend to Ben Franklin), was experimenting with the distemper recipes in Watin’s book. He published his findings in “Feuille de Cultivateur” around 1793. This was followed by “Memoire sur la peinture au lait” published in 1800 or 1801 (depending on which month it was in the French Republic Calendar at the time of publication). Cadet de Vaux noted that his previous recipe was published at a time of public misfortune (the Revolution) and a time of shortages. Although distemper paint was inexpensive the cost and shortages of linseed oil led him to use milk instead.
In “Memoire,” Cadet de Vaux describes the advantages of milk paint compared to distemper: milk paint was cheaper, the recipe was not heated, it dried fast, did not smell of size or oil and when rubbed with a coarse cloth the paint did not come off. The recipe consisted of skimmed milk, fresh slaked lime, oil of caraway, linseed or nut oil and Spanish white. He explains that the “skimmed milk has lost its butyraceous part, but retains its cheesy part.” The cheesy part acts as a kind of glue and gives the mixture an elasticity.
Cadet de Vaux also provides a milk paint recipe for exterior work. In 1801, “Memoire” was translated and published in London in “The Repertory of Arts and Manufacters,” and you can read the recipe and the butyraceous remark here.
Cadet de Vaux’s recipe was repeated in “The Painter’s and Varnisher’s Guide…” by P. F. Tingry (a Swiss chemist) in 1804. Many more editions of painting and varnishing manuals with various titles and translations followed. Cadet de Vaux’s recipe appears to be the standard.
Somewhere around 1803-1808, milk paint recipes appeared in articles and almanacs in New York and New England and for the most part were from the English translation of Cadet de Vaux’s “Memoire.”
Now I get to write my favorite command in Franglish, “Fetchez la vache!”
— Suzanne Ellison