Posted on 7/22/2012 4:20 PM by Grace Jeffers

This question comes from Caroline Alder, an art director in the film industry. She writes:

“I am presently working on a period short film (mid 50s). The house we will be filming in has a lot of white wood veneer wall panels (see attached pictures). I am confident that wood veneer existed in that period but I question the white one.”

Caroline Alder's photo of the white painted wood paneling on the set location for her film.

This is an interesting situation. Ms. Alder is basically fact-checking the material details in her set location. She is trying to determine if the paneling that is currently in the house is period appropriate or not. How would one check this?

Well, emailing me, who has experience in restoring mid-century structures, is one option. But there are others. Primary source material becomes mandate at this point. Are there any period photographs of the interiors? This is your first line of defense. The second is to examine periodicals, newspapers and ephemera from the era. Look for home magazine and manufacturers brochures which are on file at certain libraries. In my research I have even learned a lot from looking at old films.

But that’s not all! There are good secondary source materials available as well. Theodore Pruddon from the prestigious Columbia school of preservation wrote the stellar reference book "Preservation of Modern Architecture." Ward Bucher’s "Dictionary of Building Preservation" may also offer some insight.

If you discover anything interesting, drop me a line and let me know!

Oh and to offer my personal answer to Ms Adler’s question:

From my research, I can say that I am not familiar with all white wood paneling - as in painted white wood paneling in mid-century modern interiors. There was a white vinyl panel that was used in industrial bathrooms, but not a residential living room. 

Whitewashed or cerused wood would have been the closest thing. Whitewash is made from slaked lime or chalk, mixed with a base to form a low-cost paint. Traditionally, it was only used on exterior surfaces such as fences and barns because it has a tendency to rub off when brushed against, though in the United Kingdom it was often used as an interior paint in lower class worker’s cottages. Cerusing is a process for finishing wood, achieved by rubbing layers of white wax into the grain to create a beautiful “salt and pepper” effect with the color of the wood underneath. (A little side note: Ceruse is French for “white lead;” when you put vinegar onto lead, the acid reacts with the metal to form the white powder ceruse. This powder was used both as an artist’s pigment, and as a whitening cosmetic in Elizabethan times). Traditional wainscoting is wood paneling, often painted white; it has been used as an interior wall covering since the 17th century.

Whitewashed wood

Cerused wood