Take a tour of the American South, and you’ll no doubt notice a common feature among the traditional houses pushed back from the sidewalks. Interestingly, the vast majority of homeowners have painted their porch ceilings and window shutters a particular shade of blue. And if you were to enquire about the name of this color, you’d probably be told that it’s “haint blue.” Yet the history behind the use of this popular shade is likely more sobering – and horrifying – than you’d have initially imagined.
Naturally, many people won’t have given much thought to the color of their porch ceilings or shutters. In fact, it’s possible – and even likely in some cases – that people choose haint blue in order to continue family traditions. And this is a factor that strategic design intelligence director Ellen O’Neill from paint producer Benjamin Moore touched upon when she spoke to Today in 2017.
O’Neill said, “No one would think twice about painting their porch blue, because their grandmother’s and their parents’ [porches] were blue. It’s permeated into porch design.” Color design expert Lori Sawaya also confirmed this to paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams. She said, “Porch ceilings have always been blue in the South.”
Yet the porch-painting tradition had to have started somewhere. And it seems that the origins of painting blue shutters and porches could be rooted in either everyday concerns – or a more shameful shared history. Putting forward a case for the former, then, Sherwin-Williams states that the practice could have started with the Victorians.
The theory goes that the Victorians – or those who lived in the mid- to late-19th century – liked decorating their properties with paints reminiscent of the natural world. So, for instance, your typical Victorian might have applied earthy colors, such as ochre or terracotta, to their home. This would apparently have brought to mind a sense of being outside.
So, the Victorians seemingly chose blue for their porch ceilings for the exact same reason; it would remind them of bright, clear skies – even when the actual weather was miserable. This theory is, then, a long way removed from the shameful history that many believe the color is concealing. Yet while O’Neill didn’t namecheck the Victorians specifically, the designer does appear to agree with the general concept that blue equals sky.
O’Neill told Today, “A blue sky is an optimistic thing to look at. It reminds us of daybreak; it wards off gloomy weather and delays nightfall. Painting a ceiling blue brings in nature and the sky.” So the argument for this – and not any darker reason – being behind the South’s abundant haint blue shutters is compelling. And it seems that reminding people of long, summer days is not the only rational reason that one might desire a blue porch ceiling.
According to Colour Affects – and a number of other sources – blue tones usually have a relaxing impact on people. And if this is true, it follows that it would be the ideal color with which to decorate a porch. After all, it wouldn’t do to be feeling stressed out or enraged while sitting out on the stoop trying to enjoy a bit of quiet time.
The color can also work to make the porch a calming extension of the natural surroundings. That’s because, as we mentioned, we associate blue with a clear sky. Lori Sawaya told Sherwin-Williams, “Light blues especially lighten and brighten space and propagate any light that you do get, because of the basic nature of color.” So the shade seemingly promotes a relaxing sense of being outside. For many, that would be enough. Yet for others, the use of haint blue is more closely tied to a shameful history.
Is that the whole story, though? After all, there could also be another practical reason for folks choosing a blue porch ceiling – even if it may be more of a myth. You see, this theory goes that blue paint will help keep insects at bay during the warmer months. O’Neill said to Today, “If an insect perceives that a ceiling is really the sky, it instinctively wouldn’t nest there.”
O’Neill continued, “It depends how deep you want to go into the brain of an insect… but it’s not unlike how ladybugs will land on a white house. It’s a visual trick.” Other homeowners seemingly believe there’s truth in this theory, too, and that’s why they’ve painted their porch ceilings blue. But it’s possible that it’s not 100 percent accurate – at least, not anymore. It’s also possible that users are turning a blind eye to history.
Historically speaking, you see, the blue paints used on ceilings were normally “milk paints,” and they often had lye stirred into the mix for good measure. So, it was the lye that typically served to keep bugs away. And as milk paints would often deteriorate with the passage of time, the addition of extra layers of paint every now and then boosted the amount of lye on the ceilings and shutters.
Of course, paint is rarely made with lye these days. Sherwin-Williams’ paints are, for instance, usually mixed with water or oil. In fact, lye is now more likely to be seen in chemical paint remover rather than ready-mixed paint. So, it seems that blue paint’s ability to keep porches bug-free could be something of a legend. Yet people obviously started painting their porches and shutters blue for a reason.
But was it for one of the reasons presented above – or a more sobering explanation? Myths and legends may yet play a role in the use of the color, too. Certainly, the American South has a rich history – and many of its traditions were born years and years ago. Or perhaps it’s simply because the color is so adaptable? Blue could fit every kind of household, after all.
In fact, O’Neill told Today that blue will work “regardless of the rest of the paint colors” on a house. The designer explained, “It looks like, ‘Oh, of course, that’s the sky.’” Yet while interior designer Zoe Kyriacos agreed on principle, she argued to Sherwin-Williams that there’s a little more to it than that.
Kyriacos said, “You don’t want [a blue ceiling] to look like an afterthought or like it came out of nowhere. You want to make it look like it was part of the package.” And – putting aside all possible historical resonance of haint blue – the color expert had further advice on selecting just the right color for your house.
So if you’re willing to put aside any misgivings about the horrible history of haint blue and are just looking to decorate an older-style home, Kyriacos recommends considering a pale blue. But if your house is more modern, you could be better off selecting a blue with extra attitude. And to mix things up a little, the designer reckons that blues with suggestions of different tints could work well too.
The shade that we’re most interested in, though, is haint blue. This is the subtle, almost turquoise blue that is seemingly favored by southerners – particularly in South Carolina. And the name of this particular shade should offer up a clue to its supposed mythical origin. This in turn will also highlight the more shameful aspects of the color’s history.
You see, the word haint actually refers to a spirit or ghost in southern folklore. But – as you could probably guess – these are not friendly spirits. According to the legends, haints or “boo hags” were unpleasant beings that had somehow liberated themselves from their human hosts.
These dastardly ghosts would then roam the land after nightfall looking to maim or possibly murder anyone who might cross their paths. So, if you believed these stories – as the Gullah people of the South apparently did – it’s understandable that you might want some kind of protection against the evil haints.
So haint blue is supposed to confuse the spirits and therefore keep people safe from harm. But how does it do this? Well, it actually links into some of the factors we discussed earlier – namely that blue can resemble the color of the sky or water.
This particular shade of blue was significant because it was believed that the boo hags were not able to travel through water. It was also thought that the spirits wouldn’t go near the sky because the victims they sought were on the ground. So, by painting ceilings, shutters and even glass bottles this particular hue, people believed that they were being protected.
But while the stories of boo hags might not necessarily be true, the history of haint blue paint is still shocking – and very real. It also has very little to do with supernatural spirits and everything to do with unfathomable hardship. In reality, it all started with indigo plants and a 16-year-old girl named Eliza Lucas.
Indigo dye – an essential component of blue paint – once came predominantly from indigo plants. This was a time long before synthetic indigo could be mass-produced, of course. And in the 18th century the hard-to-get dye from these herbs, trees and shrubs was a sign of affluence.
So, it was a turning point in South Carolinian agricultural history when the young Lucas initially extracted indigo in 1742. This was the moment that the dye was first farmed in the United States, and just five years later, a shipment of the precious material made its way across the Atlantic.
Remember, the American Revolution wouldn’t occur for another 20 years – so at the time the United States was still a British colony. And as indigo was much sought after in Europe, the export of the dye became big business. In fact, at its most successful, over 1.2 million pounds of indigo left the U.S. in a single year, according to the South Carolina Encyclopedia.
Incredibly, Ancestry.com claims that the indigo trade became the second-largest export business in the United States. Those in charge of the cultivation of the dye were therefore earning great wealth. And indigo was being used to create luxurious clothing for Europe’s upper classes. Yet there was one major catch to the large-scale production of the rare dye.
There was no easy way of cultivating the plant, and the process of transforming the plant to dye could take up to 20 hours. This involved labor-intensive, time-consuming methods such as soaking, beating, draining, drying and transporting the goods. It also depended on workers with specialist knowledge.
Where making indigo was such a convoluted process, turning a profit out of trading the product was almost impossible. But in the mid-18th century, wealthy plantation owners would take advantage of their slaves to provide free labor. More specifically, landowners relied on the knowledge and expertise of African slaves.
There was another problem, too. As the demand for indigo increased, so too did the apparent need for slave labor. This led to an influx of African slaves to South Carolina. And according to Ancestry.com, more than half of all slaves landing in America ended up in the state.
Yet it wasn’t just the African slaves who found themselves falling on hard times. The demand for indigo got so great, you see, that plantations eventually started to run out of land. And this resulted in the landowners taking more land from nearby indigenous tribes.
So now the increasing number of slaves found themselves working on ever-expanding territories of land. And, as you might imagine, the slaves had already endured horrifying conditions. The ships used to bring them into the country were typically rife with systematic abuse and disease, after all. Furthermore, a fifth of African slaves in the mid-18th century didn’t even make it off the boat, according to the Black History Month website.
Life on the plantations was likely not much better, either. Louise Miller Cohen, who established the Hilton Head Island Gullah Museum, told Atlas Obscura in January 2020, “If [reparations were] attached to indigo, they would do everything possible to keep the word from ever being mentioned.” The indigo boom, though, would soon come to an end.
The American Revolutionary War took place between 1775 and 1783. And after the conflict ended, the Thirteen Colonies achieved independence and officially founded the United States of America. But the trade of indigo effectively crashed a few years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The United States was no longer beholden to the Brits, after all, and the latter country began to look to India for its indigo needs. So, as quickly as 1802 – just 20 years after the war – the dye wasn’t a factor in South Carolina’s exportation trade. But it would still be another 63 before slavery was abolished – and landowners simply found another trade through which to exploit their workforce.
Those African slaves who first cultivated indigo were the forebears of the Gullah people. And it was their apparent belief in boo rags and haints that seemingly brought the color blue to prominence in the South. So, it’s this group who are also taking strides to reclaim the importance of haint blue.
Heather L. Hodges, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor National Heritage Area’s executive director, told Atlas Obscura, “Indigo dye is deeply rooted in African culture.” She also explained that haint blue “is widely used by Gullah Geechee visual artists and filmmakers as a way of expressing their shared… heritage and history with indigo cultivation.”
For instance, Julie Dash’s acclaimed movie Daughters of the Dust features an indigo theme throughout. It has even been argued that the film’s use of indigo represents the ways in which the characters must interact with their own painful pasts. The picture also happens to be the first from an African-American woman to get distributed across the country.
Both Cohen and Hodges also revealed that they actively worked with the dye to help the locals reconnect with the past. The pair even organized workshops and events around the use of indigo. Cohen told Atlas Obscura, “I’m interested in learning all I can about the crops that caused my people [the] loss of their freedom.”
So the use of haint blue on shutters and porch ceilings throughout South Carolina and beyond is seemingly commonplace. Yet it appears that the history of this shade of blue is far from well known. For the Gullah people and their African ancestors, though, its importance should never be forgotten.
And as it turns out, there can be hidden meanings almost everywhere you look. While you’re watching out for that particular shade of haint blue, then, you should also keep your eyes peeled for lilac. That’s because if you happen to spot a lilac bush outside someone’s home, it may be concealing a poignant message.
The lilac bush is one of nature’s most formidable flora, able to withstand the most grueling of weather conditions. And when it blooms, it’s generally a long-awaited sign that spring is on the way. But the fragrant flowering bush’s roots run deep, and different cultures have assigned it a wide range of meanings over the years. Indeed, if you see a lilac bush outside someone’s home today, it may have been planted for a heartbreaking reason.
In recent years, lilacs have been growing not only in gardens but also in popularity. They flower in an attractive array of colors, you see, including purple, pink, white and blue. And despite their hardy reputation, their pastel-like palette is easy on the eye, introducing softness to any landscape. What’s more, as most variations of the plant can grow to a whopping ten feet tall, they’re great for adding height to green spaces.
Now, the lilac’s botanical moniker is syringa vulgaris, and it’s part of the Oleaceae, or olive, family. That puts it in the same group as more than 20 distinctive types of plants, including the likes of privets, jasmines, and of course, olives. And within those types are hundreds of species – indeed, the lilac alone boasts over 1,000 different varieties.
Not all of the lilac varieties are similar, either. Many of them grow in bush formations, such as the Souvenir de Louis Spaeth, which blossoms in prettiest pink. But there are also plenty of lilac trees, including the Japanese variant, which can grow to a remarkable stature of 30 feet. And some of them even defy typical lilac behavior, by – for example – blooming at unusual times of the year.
In any case, lilacs have been growing in popularity for all sorts of reasons. For many folks, you see, the idyllic flower’s fragrance is associated with a childhood memory. Yes, as one gardening blogger reminisced in 2017, “When I breathe in their sweet perfume, I am a little girl in my mother’s garden, holding as many stems of purple flower clusters that my hands can manage.”
That’s not the only reason why the lilac scent is so popular, though. After all, you don’t need to have grown up with it in your garden to appreciate just how wonderful it smells. Next time you’re at the grocery store, for instance, a stroll down the soap aisle will cause you to notice how many different products use the attractive aroma of the flowering bush.
Furthermore, lilacs are also an ideal choice for budding gardeners. Not only are they tough plants, but they’re also very easy to grow. In fact, all they need is a daily dose of sunlight, some good soil and time to rest during the cold winter months. Yes, they should survive well through even the frostiest climates. But they, unfortunately, don’t cope quite as well in the scorching heat.
Therefore, if you’re having a go at planting lilacs for the first time, don’t be disparaged when they don’t bloom instantly. You’ll just need to be patient. There could, you see, be as many as three years between your initial planting and the first time that the flowers make an appearance. As long as you take good care of them in the meantime, you should have nothing to worry about.
And you don’t need to be a horticulturist to provide the level of care that the bushes need, either. Indeed, there are just three seasonal rules to remember when growing lilacs. In winter, give them a little fertilizer if they’re looking malnourished – but not too much. In spring, throw down a fresh pile of compost. And in summer, give them a weekly splash of water when the weather’s dry.
So, the common lilac plants usually bloom in the late spring or early summer. That’s typically ahead of other flowers, such as roses, which tend to come out later in the summer. Not all lilac varieties share the same schedule, though. Some bloom just before the spring, for instance, or early in the season. However, in the early 20th century, horticulturist Isabella Preston bred 52 new late-blooming lilac varieties, which were designed to withstand the cold Canadian springs.
While Syringa vulgaris may be widespread in the United States, it isn’t actually native to the country. Indeed, the common lilac’s original habitat lies in the Balkan Peninsula, where it grows on mountainsides. And botanists only discovered this in the early 19th century – long after the aromatic plant had been introduced to European gardens and exported across the Atlantic ocean.
Historians believe lilacs first made the journey to the United States in the middle of the 18th century. Apparently, you see, they were originally planted in New Hampshire, in what’s now a state park – but was, at the time, the Governor Wentworth Estate. In the years since, the lilac has become the state’s official flower, reportedly reflecting the hardiness of New Hampshire’s population.
In the States, lilacs could be called something of a presidential plant, too. That’s because George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are both known to have planted the flowering bush in the late 1700s. Jefferson, who served as the country’s third president, documented his endeavors in great detail in his gardening journal.
And as the lilac made its way around the world, more and more species were cultivated. For instance, from the late 19th to early 20th centuries, French horticulturist Victor Lemoine bred more than 153 new lilac hybrids. Among these were his “French lilacs,” which broadened the color spectrum of the flower. Several of Lemoine’s cultivars are still popular among landscapers to this day.
By the end of the 19th century, the common lilac – and Lemoine’s hybrid alternatives – sat alongside a number of Asian varieties in American and European gardens. Mostly hailing from Japan, Korea and China, these lilacs are popular for their shorter stature. That’s right, one particular species, known as “Miss Kim,” doesn’t tend to grow above five feet tall. And it doesn’t need an icy winter to bloom, either.
On the other hand, the common lilac bush fares best in places that experience particularly cold winters. Their blooming is ultimately a welcome sign, then, because it happens when the weather changes, signaling that the snowy season is over. As such, the petals now symbolize the beginning of spring and are therefore associated with themes of renewal.
Despite their relatively recent introduction to European and American gardens, lilacs have been bestowed all manner of meanings by different cultures. In Greek mythology, for instance, the purple flowers featured in the story of Pan, the god of fields, flocks and forests. Like lilacs, Pan is associated with spring, largely thanks to his relationship with fertility.
As the story goes, Pan was infatuated with a nymph called Syringa. However, she feared the god’s affections and fled from him through a forest. As Pan pursued the nymph, she attempted to disguise herself by transforming into a lilac bush. But according to Greek lore, Pan stumbled upon the bush and broke off a branch. Then he used it to fashion the very first panpipe. So, both Syringa and the lilac’s botanical name are derived from “syrinks,” which is the Greek word for pipe.
But the Greeks aren’t the only culture to hold the lilac plant in high regard. That’s right, the plant’s sweet scent led the Celtics to perceive it as “magical.” Meanwhile, the Victorians saw the lilac as a symbol of old love. It therefore wouldn’t have been uncommon to see a widow wearing the flower back then. And in Russia, parents waved the plant over their newborn children, believing it would impart wisdom.
While lilacs as a whole are associated with confidence and, of course, renewal, each color has its own meaning in turn. And those significations often match those of the colors themselves. White lilacs are linked with innocence and purity, for instance. Blue lilacs, meanwhile, are said to represent tranquility – just as the color blue itself is associated with calm and stability.
There are instances where the flower’s meaning does not match its color, however. For instance, magenta lilacs are thought to represent passion and love. Traditionally, though, those feelings are more closely linked to red, while magenta is usually a color of balance and harmony. In the same vein, purple is thought to symbolize luxury, power and nobility, while purple lilacs are associated with spirituality.
And some lilacs simply carry no meaning at all. That’s the case for the rare yellow variant of the flower, which is known as Syringa vulgaris “Primrose.” You see, it was first introduced in 1949 but remains much rarer than the lilac’s other colors. When it first blooms, Primrose’s color is subtle. However, it becomes more intense as the years go on.
No matter their color, though, lilacs have inspired many an artist over the generations. For example, both Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh created impressionist works based on the flowers in the late 19th century. And decades earlier, Walt Whitman penned the poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” in remembrance of the late Abraham Lincoln.
While they have deep roots in U.S. history and beyond, lilacs admittedly aren’t the perfect plant. For one, their bushes often grow into strange shapes. Then, about halfway through summer, the majority of lilacs attract an aesthetically unpleasant gray mildew. And once the flowers have finished blooming, what’s left of the plant is even less appealing.
Furthermore, lilac bushes won’t do much for your home landscaping in the colder months. Without their beautiful flowers, they’re rendered rather lifeless, you see. So perhaps the best place to plant them, then, is in the backdrop of your shrubbery. That way, when they’re done flowering, they can simply fade away – perhaps making way for roses, which typically bloom later than lilac.
And while lilacs are typically easy to grow, you could find them a struggle, particularly if the weather isn’t great. Without enough sunlight – around six hours every day – your plants simply may not flower. Equally, you could experience issues if you fail to trim back the older stems after they’ve flowered. That’s because you need younger stems to produce more next year.
If your lilacs are getting plenty of sunlight, and only young stems are protruding from the bush, then all is well. But if you’re still not seeing any flowers come spring, it may be worth checking the soil around the plant. With too much fertilizer, the bush will likely only produce leaves and relatively few flowers – so it’s worth keeping an eye on the nitrogen content of the soil.
Lastly, you’ll need to ensure that the lilacs have plenty of room to grow, so plant the bushes around eight feet apart. Regardless of whether your lilacs bloom properly, though, they’re unlikely to die altogether. And that means the bushes often outlive not only the gardener who planted them but even the property that they were planted at. Indeed, if you pass a lonely lilac bush on a country road, it means there was likely a house close by at one point.
More specifically, though, it’s likely that this house or farm would have been complete with an outhouse. Yes, a century ago, farmers would plant sweet-smelling lilac bushes next to their outhouses. And as you can imagine, the intention was that the fragrant flowers would overpower the smelly odor that emanated from the small shed.
However, because lilacs don’t bloom for very long, their usefulness was limited in this regard. Their scents would last for just two weeks – but that wasn’t the only use for the bushes. When an outhouse was full, a farmer would uproot the building and move it further down. And when they did this, they’d plant a fresh bush in the filled hole – which is why you might now find lilac groves on the edge of old farmland. So, you could even say that the flower was used as nature’s air freshener.
There is one other meaning behind the lilac bush – and it’s rather heartbreaking. Yes, they weren’t always used for such practical purposes as masking outhouse smells. And nor were they ever truly decorative – as park manager Chris Orange told Indiana-based news blog OrangeBean in January 2020, “They didn’t spend much time a hundred years ago bothering with landscaping. That’s a pretty recent thing.”
Lilac bushes, you see, were often planted a century ago as a means of respectfully marking a miscarriage. Indeed, they were usually planted at graves, which were either simply symbolic or they would mark where the placenta would be buried following a birth. In both instances, however, they were a way in which grieving couples could help to work through their emotions.
Sadly, when a tragic event such as a miscarriage occurs, it can be difficult to process. As Rachelle J. Christensen, author of the 2010 book Lost Children: Coping with Miscarriage, wrote on her blog in 2011, “It’s important to take the time you need to heal and enlist the help of others. In the event of a miscarriage, some people may not want to give you any grieving time. They will expect you to be 100 percent a few days later.”
Christensen’s blog, therefore, lists a few ways people can process their grief. And one particular example calls back to the method employed by those homesteaders a hundred years ago. “Plant a lilac bush or a tree, and tell yourself that as this tree grows, so will you continue to grow in strength and courage to face each day,” she wrote.
What’s more, lilac bushes aren’t the only plant Christensen has recommended for grieving couples. While the plants are very low maintenance, they’re not for everyone – and nor does everyone have access to a garden. “I have African Violets that are ten years old and a variety of houseplant that is thirteen years old that requires very little maintenance and grows beautifully,” she wrote.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Czukas suggested a long list of potential memorial garden flowers for pregnancy website Verywell Family in 2018. Among them is the white lilac, of course, which Czukas notes typically symbolizes “youthful innocence [and] memories.” But she also recommends a number of alternative plants, each with their own individual significance.
For instance, lilies can mean “faith, grace, and spiritual healing,” wrote Czukas. Or, you could opt for fuchsia, which apparently symbolizes “harmony, healing for those who grieve, [and] angels.” Most importantly, though, Czukas recommends thinking about a variety of factors before deciding what to plant. “For example, you might consider the types of flowers that grow best in your region and the size of your memorial garden,” she explained.
Not everyone will choose to have a full memorial garden, however. Indeed, one user of parenting website BabyCenter described their alternative plans in 2012. “I thought it would be nice to… plant a tree, so it’s a memorial but also planted in something that represented life,” wrote mmh06. “I am thinking of planting an oak tree. They last a long time, they’re sturdy (how sad would I be if the tree died), and they have resurrection ferns.”
Sadly, though, planting a tree may not be viable if you’re planning to move in the future. In that case, then, it may be a better idea to opt for something that can be easily transported, such as a potted plant. For example, in 2015 Mumsnet user shovetheholly suggested, “a white standard rose, symbolizing innocence. This could be underplanted with other plants that have symbolic meaning: bellflowers (campanula) for loss, snowdrops, for consolation or hope.”
All those suggestions are perfectly valid, of course. However, it’s the classic, common lilac bush that was used a century ago to mark miscarriages. So the next time you pass a row of the hardy flowers, you may feel bound to pay your respects. For they may well denote a place where a couple once endured a tragic loss.