Haint Blue

blue

In the wake of our recent discussion of scrub jays and paper wasps, Donna, one of our regular readers, tipped me off to the Southern tradition of painting porch ceilings haint blue to discourage nesting insects — and restless spirits (“haint” derives from “haunt”) — from making themselves at home in our living spaces.

Haint blue is not a single shade of blue, but refers rather to a blue used for this purpose. The actual color could run from soft powder blue to true sky blue to bright teal.

While the cool, airy white porch with a blue ceiling speaks to elegant Victoriana, I’ll note that the practice probably does originate in the traditions of the Gullah or Geechee people, brought to this country as slaves. They’d mix up lime paint in various shades of blue and paint not only their ceilings, but around doors and windows–around every opening into their home, to protect themselves from evil spirits.

I spent a little time ( a very little time, admittedly!) looking for some solid historical writing on this haint blue business, but found nothing but hearsay. The same basic info seems to be distributed all over the Internets,  which means the resource pool is pretty small, or pretty shallow. Nonetheless, I think the idea of a blue porch ceiling very appealing, if for no other reason than it extends the open sky into our living spaces.

All this business is novel to me, a Westerner born and bred, but perhaps some of our readers from the South will have comments or experience with haint blue?

In the meanwhile, our front porch is overdue for painting, and I think I’ll try a blue ceiling this time. I’ll let you know what the wasps (and spirits) make of it.

For more information, the good folks over at Apartment Therapy have a post which covers the basics of what the Internet knows about haint blue:

Pretty and Practical: The History of “Haint Blue” Porch Ceilings

And Donna’s original comment pointed to this show, called You Bet Your Garden.

Thanks, Donna!

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14 Comments

  1. I just want to share that I once read somewhere that the reason blue and white tile work is so popular all over the Mediterranean, especially in kitchens, is that flies are repelled by blue (even darker blues, apparently).

  2. Ghosts aren’t supposed to be able to cross water. So painting the ceiling, shutters, etc. keeps ghosts I.e. haunts outside the home

  3. I haven’t seen much personal evidence that blue porch ceilings change fly or wasp behavior–on both blue and non-blue Southern porches, they tend to bump their way upwards until caught by the overhang or blown back downward by a ceiling fan. But blue ceilings (and trim) can be really pretty, and they contrast really well with the traditional white detailing and/or siding, floral seat cushions and large green porch ferns found on many Southern homes. I admit, it seems a bit weird to me that anyone would paint their porch in any way other than gray floor boards, white rails & columns (or black ironwork) and a light blue porch ceiling. Those are “porch colors”. 🙂

    The superstition isn’t just to stop ghosts–it’s for anything supernatural. Along with some salt on the sill and some upside-down bottles in the yard, like bottle trees or wind chimes, for supernatural things to get trapped in). Putting blue glass on the sill also works, according to the stories passed down to me. The idea of blue as a protection against various forms of evil is found in a lot of European and African stories, including some from the Middle East (in one, the glass bottles holding djinn or genies had to be blue or the seals wouldn’t work). True blue colorants and pigments, in a wide variety of materials, were both expensive and difficult to get for a lot of human history, and more diluted forms (which would make the light blues) would have been more affordable but still “luxurious”. It is interesting that blue has such a particular weight in the histories of that Euro-Middle Eastern-African trade axis, but apparently not quite so much in other regions. Though, turquoise was/is a protective stone (and color) in many First Nation/Native American traditions, and had some usage as such in Chinese architecture (though jade was by far more important). I haven’t looked at how indigo batiks were/are viewed in Asia, so it might be a fairly universal idea–blue is protective against unspecified harm.

    A lot of people don’t know the superstitions behind the “southern” touches they add to their outside decor. They’re just doing what they see in Southern Living magazine, or in certain neighborhoods in Charleston or New Orleans or Savannah. It’s certainly not a look I’ve seen much outside the South, but I wonder if the initial reasons were something more prosaic–like either it was a more expensive color, the best paint for ceilings was only available in that color in whatever location it started in or it was more durable/easier to apply. I have NO idea where it started, either–I’ve heard tour guides in both Charleston and the Garden District (New Orleans) claim it originated there. Probably, it came about because someone got a good deal on a blue paint, and it echoed off those old stories and just spread because people liked it.

  4. I live in a Victorian home in the South. The porch ceiling was blue and the floor grey when we moved here. I repainted it the same colors. The house was white. When I put a beaded tongue and groove ceiling on the side porch, I painted it blue, a clear sky blue, nothing muddy or turquoise. It is calm, peaceful, does not collide with a blue sky and jar the senses. Haints and wasps? I don’t know.

  5. It’s the natural color for a porch ceiling. A neighbor recently told me that the “real” reason is that spiders don’t like it, so it keeps your porch cleaner.

    Practical and supernatural powers aside, it’s just a lovely refreshing color for a porch. Just keep the hue very light! So glad you are spreading the tradition to Ellay.

  6. Just want to add for all of your southern readers that I only know about haint blue second hand. I’ve never lived in the South, only in the cold Northeast. Nonetheless, as soon as I have a porch ceiling to paint, it’s going to be blue, because we have wasps – and ghosts – up around here, too, and every little bit helps.

  7. I live in New England, and we paint our porch ceilings blue, too. Don’t use the term “haint” but I’ve heard that it keeps away the bugs. Nothing keeps away our mosquitos, but it’s pretty and I have a white house with a big farmhouse porch with a blueberry blue ceiling.

    • Yes, I was going to say that too. My Maine relatives had blue ceilings on the “piazzas” too. And that was back in the early 50s.

      If I remember correctly, the floors were also painted grey.

  8. How interesting! We live in a house built in 1900, mostly still original inside and out. We painted the porch ceilings light blue several years ago. Makes the porches seem more cheery and cooler when it’s hot outside. But it definitely doesn’t deter wasps, bees, spiders, ants or other crawly, flying things.
    Don’t know about haints, we never did have any in the 32 years we’ve been here.
    Tho’ I do have blue glass bottles lined up on the railings, just because I like them. I never knew they kept away evil spirits…I think my cats do that.

    • Black cats with a white spot on their chest (anything from a little “milk drop” to a full tuxedo) are actually faerie felines, supposedly. And cats quite often are given guardian powers in many different story traditions–my favorite cat vs. ghost story comes from a small old collection simply called “Japanese Fairy Tales” that I had as a child.

      So, maybe you have a resident faery who keeps everyone else in line, or perhaps you have a few guardians! 😉

    • Ah…a rather unfriendly old tuxedo cat likes to hang out in our front yard (she hisses if you say hello). This explains much!

  9. Sounds like a lot of people have the same idea. The traditional Pennsylvania Dutch porch has a gray floor and blue ceiling. The blue ceiling is to make flies think it’s the sky so they won’t land and leave their specks. (I knew a PA Dutch housekeeper who scrubbed fly specks off her porch so maybe it doesn’t work!)

  10. Here in New England, especially in the older houses, porch ceilings are painted light blue (sky blue, robin’s egg blue mostly) — I was told it keeps the stinging bugs away (not true!) Never heard of haint. But it’s been a tradition here for a long, long time, since porches were added to homes (vs. the earliest homes, which are the saltboxes that had no porches).

    • “Haint” is just “haunt,” in other words, anything supernatural harmful. The blue you describe is all I have ever seen in my town. AND, spiders and wasps did not get the message about the repellant property of blue!

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