To remove the smell of paint

Writing a book of household hints seems to have been a bit like figure skating - you could do whatever you wanted as long as you included all the compulsory elements. If your book didn’t include sections on stain removal, dealing with scorched pans, cleaning the stove, and at least ten different uses for ammonia, then it wasn’t really a proper book of household hints at all. One other item on the compulsory list was advice on removing the smell from newly painted rooms.

I don't know if it's just old New Zealand newspapers, but these ads with shouty blocks of repeated text are strangely common. "Sale sale sale" isn't just the province of late night ads for used cars. From the Pahiatua Herald, 21 October 1938.

The smell of paint seems to have been a popular preoccupation. In January 1910, a story in the New Zealand Herald (headlined “Smell of Paint. A Crew’s Objection.”) told of a ship’s crew who refused to sail because the ship had just been repainted and the smell was all too much. Apparently “the paint was quite dry, and it was pointed out that when the vessel was travelling at 10 knots per hour, the draught forced through the ventilators would soon remove the smell”, but even that wasn’t enough to convince them, so the sailing was delayed until late at night to give the smell a chance to dissipate.

The obvious question, then, is what was in paint that made it smell so bad? As usual, Harmsworth’s Household Encyclopedia has the answer. “White lead forms the basis of all oil paint, the various pigments the at form the different colours being mixed with it, with the addition of linseed oil, driers, and turpentine”. Now, probably the cause of the smell was the turpentine, which incidentally is quite toxic - this article from the Marlborough Express from March of 1908 reports that: “Turpentine, in short, is a poison, and cats and rabbits are so susceptible to its action that if kept exposed to its vapour for some minutes they exhibit marked toxic symptoms ending in death if they are not removed from the sphere of action of the vapour.” All of which should have made everyone a little more sympathetic to the crew two years later who didn’t want to spend the night stewing away in turpentine fumes. However, that probably wasn’t the only reason paint made people feel sick.

If you look up any modern advice about lead based paint (and the only advice you’re likely to find is how to safely remove it), you will find cautions about the kind of respirator to wear and the necessity to be careful not to inhale any dust or any fumes. If you look in vintage advice books like Harmsworth, though, you will find advice about how to avoid “painter’s colic”, which is a cheery name for lead poisoning, by washing your hands thoroughly between touching lead and eating, as well as the observation that “Little children are always inclined to carry everything in their mouths, and therefore gaily painted toys should not be given them,” but what you won’t find is any advice about lead dust or fumes. In fact, although apparently (Harmsworth again) “It is not economical to make up one’s own paint, unless at least 2 or 3 lb. are required”, they are quite happy to give you a recipe:

White lead and linseed oil must first be ground together until a good stiff mass results. The best way to do this is to employ a marble slab and a bone or hardwood spatula. Having negotiated the first stage, dry colours should be added, a little at a time, until the desired shade is achieved… The paint may now be thinned with linseed oil and turpentine in equal parts, to which have been added a proportion of patent driers equal to from ⅛ to 1/10 of the entire bulk of paint by weight.

Leaving aside the evocative image of the DIYer grinding away at his lump of lead with a rock and a bone, when you look at the ingredients, it is probably kind of unsurprising that fresh paint tended to smell bad and make you feel lousy, and that it would take a while before you’d want to share a room with it. But given that most people couldn’t afford to move house (or abandon ship, for that matter) while they waited for that to happen, there was a lot of interest in methods to move the process along.

The thing to take from this, I think, is that obviously all the other coverall white paints on the market were poisonous. From the Otago Daily Times, 19 December 1928

Which brings us to the advice.

There are two main kinds of advice offered, and going all the way back to 1890, Enquire Within Upon Everything actually has both of them. Firstly there’s this:

To get rid of a Bad Smell in a room newly painted. Place a vessel full of lighted charcoal in the middle of the room, and throw on it two or three handfuls of juniper berries, shut the windows, the chimney, and the door close; twenty-four hours afterwards the room may be opened, when it will be found that the sickly, unwholesome smell will be entirely gone. The smoke of the juniper berry possesses this advantage, that should anything be left in the room, such as tapestry, &c., none of it will be spoiled.

If for some reason that seems unworkable to you, Enquire Within Upon Everything also suggests the following:

To get rid of the smell of oil paint, let a pailful of water stand in the room newly painted.

The Auckland Star offered very similar advice in 1894:

The Smell of Paint may be taken away by closing up the room and setting in the centre of it a pan of lighted charcoal on which have been thrown some juniper berries. Leave this in a room for a day and night, when the smell of the paint will be gone. Some persons prefer a pail of water in which a handful of hay is soaking. This is also effectual in removing the scent of tobacco smoke from a room.

The bucket of water is very common advice, but a plain bucket of water isn’t as common as a bucket of water and onions. There are more almost identical variations on this than I know what to do with, but I’ll give a couple. One from the North Otago Times from 1906:

To remove the disagreeable smell of new paint, put several dishes containing cold water in the room, and two or three slices onions. In a short time the smell will cease, But be sure to burn the onions and empty the water away as soon as it is done with.

And of course one from Aunt Daisy’s Book of Handy Hints:

The smell of paint, and other smells, in a room or cupboard can be removed by putting some hay in a bucket of water, and leaving it to stand in the tainted room. Slice onions into a bowl of water and leave in room overnight. The onions being in water will not leave any odour.

Sometimes the water is left out altogether, as in this advice from Lady Hackett’s Household Guide:

To take away the smell from a room that has been newly painted, slice up three or four onions into a basin, and leave this overnight in the room, with doors and windows closed. Next morning the odour will have disappeared.

Reading these suggestions, my first assumption was that they would be pointless at best and a fire hazard at worst, and to be fair, leaving a bunch of untended flaming coals in the middle of an empty room doesn't sound like the best idea in the world. However, when I went looking for modern advice for getting the smell of paint out of a room, after I got over being surprised that people were still giving advice about it at all, I was surprised to find that it was still basically the same advice. The open fires have become activated charcoal, and the hay is nowhere to be found, but the water and the onions are still going strong.

Of course, everything has moved on in the last hundred years, so unlike the vintage advice, the modern advice gives us reasons for things. According to the Valspar Paints article I linked above “Onions contain a chemical that neutralises the chemicals that make the paint smell.” Upgraded Home doubles down on the science with: “Syn-propanethial-S-oxide is the chemical that produces that distinctive onion smell. This compound helps to neutralize the chemical that generates paint smells, or aldehydes.” As far as the bucket of water goes, most sites claim that water can absorb volatile organic compounds, and they recommend throwing the water away once it’s done its job, just like the North Otago Times did.

Honestly, that seemed suspicious, so I went looking for anything written by an actual scientist about water absorbing VOCs the way these modern alternatives to the household encyclopedia say they do. The closest thing I found was this paper from 2020 that talked about using a water curtain and ozone to remove them. Which feels just a touch more advanced than sticking a bucket of water in the middle of the room and calling it a day.

Guaranteed 100% pure lead. From the Manawatu Standard 22 October 1927

So, do onions and water actually work to get paint smells out of a room? Hard to say. Do we want to believe that they will? Apparently so. Should we all be glad we don’t have to grind our own lead up before we paint and then leave a pan of burning charcoal in the locked room afterwards like an offering to the gods of smell? Definitely.

And finally, my searches for this article turned up this piece of advice from the Manawatu Standard on 16 October 1936 which, although it is unrelated, might be my favourite advice of all, and which we will definitely be coming back to:

If you paint your keyhole with a mixture of calcium sulphide and equal parts of turpentine and boiled oil, you will have a luminous keyhole.

I'm sure that will help.

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