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A 400-mile journey to see a paint can

Editor/Writer Leslie Poster took one for the Object Project team by adding a little detour to her family visit in Cleveland, Ohio. Here’s why she went to great lengths to track down an object for the upcoming Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project, opening July 2015.

How did I find myself in Cleveland at Sherwin-Williams headquarters, cooing at photos of my newborn niece with staff while waiting to learn about a historic paint can? We'll call it a bit of Smithsonian serendipity.

Earlier that week I had attended a meeting for Object Project, a learning space set to open next July that explores the interplay between people, innovative things, and social change that shaped everyday life in America. I'll confess that my attention was divided. My brother and his wife were in the hospital, my first niece set to arrive at any moment! Every ding and buzz from my phone promised news about the baby.

At the meeting, the Object Project team was considering one particular invention: ready-mixed, or ready-to-use, paint in a resealable can. Before this 1870s advancement from Sherwin-Williams, professional painters had to freshly mix harsh chemicals and pigment onsite from complex recipes to make paint. The Object Project team knew there was an early ready-mixed paint can on view at Sherwin-Williams in Cleveland, but they didn't know what it looked like. Still, this was a story Object Project should tell, on how this little can represents a huge change in the way we beautify and personalize our homes.

Sherwin-Williams advertisement, NYPL

"The Weather Man says: 'Bad weather coming. Stay indoors.'" A Sherwin-Williams advertisement for flat-tone wall paint, circa 1895-1917. Art and Architecture Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. New York Public Library Digital Gallery. Image ID: 1541713.

Today we have countless different shades of paint colors for every room and season, like this fall's "Mink," "Turkish Coffee," and "Foggy Day" setting the tones of our walls and our moods. Paint is a common household convenience that can be stored in the garage until you get around to finishing your latest DIY project. But easy access to paint that anyone can use wasn't always taken for granted. Before ready-mixed paint, not only was the mixing process akin to a chemistry experiment, but paint also had to be used immediately since there was no good way to store it without it becoming unusable. Sherwin-Williams' new ready-mixed paint promised affordability, ease of use, and consistent quality.

The Object Project team knew that this specific paint can that held some of the first ready-mixed paint sat in the Sherwin-Williams Center of Excellence, a focal point of an exhibition on the company's history. Someone needed to travel to Cleveland to see the can and take some pictures. It must have come as a surprise when I volunteered. But the night before I'd booked a flight back home to Cleveland, anticipating the chance to greet the newest member of my family, and I'd be mere minutes from the Center of Excellence.

I'd already convinced my little sister to play chauffeur for the weekend visit, and I was surprised that she enthusiastically agreed to also take a quick detour to see a paint can. (She must have seen the adventure in it that I had.)

The author's sister at the Center of Excellence

The author's sister at the Sherwin-Williams Center of Excellence in Cleveland

So as my brother and his wife were bundling up baby to bring her home from the hospital, my sister and I watched a paint can rotate on a pedestal inside a protective case. She filmed video, I snapped photos, and we both learned about the can that spawned countless DIY projects and painting parties.

A can of early ready-mixed, or prepared, paint

An early can of prepared, or ready-mixed, paint, on view at the Sherwin-Williams Center of Excellence

The very can we were looking at, in fact, had sat in the desk of Sherwin-Williams founder Henry Sherwin for decades before, upon the company's 50th anniversary, it was cracked open for a peek inside. According to the Center of Excellence, the contents were "found to be in perfect condition." It was a testament, surely, to the great advancements Sherwin-Williams had made in the late 1870s.

Sherwin patented the resealable tin paint can in 1877, adding ease and efficiency to the painting process. Before this invention any leftover paint would have to be discarded, resulting in physical and monetary waste. Then with the debut of his pigment grinding mill in 1879, Sherwin introduced a way to grind pigment so finely that it could be suspended within the paint's components for a long amount of time instead of quickly separating out, thus making ready-mixed paint a reality.

So confident was Sherwin-Williams in the dual developments that the Sherwin-Williams Paint, Prepared, released beginning in the fall of 1880, came with an unheard of money-back guarantee–one that promised the paint "will cover more surface, work better, wear longer, and permanently look better" than competitor paints.

House paints on display at Sherwin-Williams

House paints on display at the Sherwin-Williams Center of Excellence

"Now wasn't that cool?" My sister agreed. Within a can of paint about the size of a coffee mug was a story of groundbreaking development, and we had documented it for the Smithsonian.

With our mission accomplished (and Beyoncé in the CD player), we were off to see our baby niece.

The author and her niece

The author and her niece

Someday I'll tell my niece about the role she played in a Smithsonian research trip, but for now I'll just let her sleep on my shoulder as I wonder what future innovations might change her everyday life.

Leslie Poster is an editor and writer in the Office of Project Management and Editorial Services.