The MARY A WHALEN, originally the S.T. KIDDOO, was launched in 1938. In the many years since, her walls (bulkheads in ship parlance) have been painted, dirtied, chipped, and repainted again many times over.
Now that it is PortSide's turn to restore her interior (a work still in progress), we do our best to match the color of each space at the beginning of her career.
Our Curator/Historian methodically sands through layers of the paint, and photographs the result with a color chart taped up next to it. This documents the colors over time.
After doing this in several spaces, we found a slightly different variant of the same color in many spaces (though not all; versions of buff are also common).
What was that pale greenish color? And how could there be so many versions of it, we wondered? Marine industrial paint could not have offered 12 different versions of one light green... We posted such a query to Facebook, where we have many maritime followers and get lots of tips, and then do follow-up research.
We got an answer from tank barge Captain Bobby Silva. He loves old workboats and has a lot of historical knowledge. His father was a tanker cook and worked for Bushey (MARY is a “Bushey boat”). Bobby told us that the green color we were finding is “Eau de Nil” meaning “water of the Nile” in French.
This tip has sent us down many rabbit holes of research (more info coming here soon); and yes, this paint color has a WaterStory!
The color was all the rage in Europe as Egyptomania hit around the 1880s. You will find the color discussed in articles about fashion, interior decorating, housewares. Here's one from the Paris Review.
Egyptian antiquities became very popular in Europe and the US after the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.
The Art Deco style of the 1920s and 30s was strongly influenced by Egyptian motifs, and the subtle and hard to pin down color Eau de Nil was an important part of the style's color palate.
“When she saw the green deck chair she put her foot down firmly. 'DeValera and the Devil and the Wearing of the Green" she exclaimed. "None of that for me. British I was born and British I will die." "Yes, mam," said the taxi driver. 'But this here ain't green at all, mam, but a new color they call eau-de-nil. All deck chairs is painted that now, in compliment to our gallant lads in Egypt, mam.' 'That's different," said the old lady. 'Fold it up and bring it back with me.'"
(Excerpt found in the Express Herald, of Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, January 22, 1942)
The color was THE color in the 1930s when our MARY A. WHALEN was built. It lingered on for some decades and then fell strongly out of favor, sometimes referred to as "institutional green" associated with the DMV, police precincts and hallway tile in old public schools.
Posing more questions to Facebook, we learned from old-timers that the ship crew would have been mixing the color themselves (add green to white and a splash of red to keep it from looking too minty), which explains why there were so many versions of it on the bulkheads.
The fact that the crew mixed the paint colors likely explains the dreadful color of the Tankermen's cabin. The kindest thing we can call it is pheasant egg. Baby diahrrea is another. It's a bit depressing, so we had a big discussion as to whether we return the cabin to its original color or whether we "improve" it with a brighter version. We decided to respect the history, and use it as a way to tell stories like these. We matched the original color. It results from when you put too big a blob of red in the mix!
There was, and is, no exactness when it came to naming and identifying colors. Blanche C. Saward explained in her 1883 book Decorative Painting:
"If half a dozen practical painters, experienced in colour mixing, were asked separately to mix a given colour, say a sea green, it is almost certain that when the six colours were compared there would not be two alike. Each of the six painters might have had precisely the same make of colours to work with, and yet the “ sea green ” would in each case be different. The explanation, of course, is that opinions differ as to what is a sea green.
…colour cards issued by all the leading paint manufacturing firms in the country, as well as some from abroad [were collected and] note of the different names which different manufacturers called [the colours was carefully taken]… As an instance of the variation of these names we may cite a few examples:.
Apple green was called very light sea green and Eau de Nil green. Pea green was called also sea green and Eau de Nil.Beatrice Irwin, in her exposition on color: The New Science of Color, published in 1915. Subdivided colors into three color systems: physical, mental, and spiritual.
Eau de nil she placed as a stimulating color within the spiritual section along with mauve, citron and azure blue as can be seen in the chart below.