Have you ever asked, “Why are shutters so often green?” You and others have asked this question many times. In fact, shutters are very often painted green such that it has become a tradition in American architecture. But what is the origin of this tradition? Looking back in history we see that not only are shutters painted green, but also other window treatments. Window shades and also wooden blinds, for example, were commonly dark green as recent as the 1940s. The Williamsburg Foundation has documented the original wooden blinds of the houses of Williamsburg were commonly green and not just a single shade of green, but many different greens from Hunter green to Kelly green. Frequently, other window treatments, like curtains, were also green. One cannot help asking, why green?
As it turns out, the colorant for green paint in the 18th century was arsenic. It was believed at the time that the arsenic in the paint may have some residual effect on insects after the paint had dried; that possibly it may repel or even kill insects that came in contact with the painted surface. Obviously, the arsenic would have been completely inert, however the belief persisted. This folk tale has been traced back to England before the days of colonial America and was likely perpetuated by the desire to protect from insects.
There is even evidence that wood poster beds were painted green to protect against bed bugs in the 19th century. The following is from the travel journal of Judge Thomas Rodney, Wheeling [West] Virginia, September 18, 1803: “…his tavern is a dirty hovel and his beds swarming with [bed] bugs- yet I had very good bed perhaps the best in the house and elegant chintz furniture & being newly painted green the bugs did not much disturb me…” It is clear that the judge considers his bed having been recently painted green is credit to his good night’s rest.
Today, we see green shutters as a tradition of historic significance. Sometimes it is interesting to consider the origin of such a prevalent tradition.