Quest for Permanence

Maximilian Toch examining a painting through a microscope. Toch, who studied and wrote about the chemistry of industrial paints, art restoration, and authentication, viewed himself as a protector of modern civilization. (Othmer Library of Chemical History, CHF)

Maximilian Toch examining a painting through a microscope. Toch, who studied and wrote about the chemistry of industrial paints, art restoration, and authentication, viewed himself as a protector of modern civilization. (Othmer Library of Chemical History, CHF)

In the middle of New York’s Central Park towers a 70-foot obelisk popularly known as Cleopatra’s Needle, delivered as a gift from the Khedive of Egypt in 1881. The obelisk is flanked on either side of the park by citadels of art and science: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. 

To Maximilian Toch, a turn-of-the-20th-century industrial chemist who pursued a wide range of chemical avocations linking science and art, the obelisk was an object lesson. In his 1931 book, The Protection and Decoration of Concrete, Toch wrote: “This obelisk stood for 3,000 years in Egypt and hardly showed the ravages of time, but in less than 20 months it began to disintegrate in the climate of the City of New York.” For Toch this deterioration represented the challenge of modernity. Commerce and industry were transforming the urban landscape but were also putting that landscape in harm’s way: the air pollution and humid climate corroding the granite of the ancient obelisk also endangered the concrete, steel, and iron of modern skyscrapers.

Toch took up this challenge and made the struggle for permanence his life’s work. He carried the battle from his family’s paint-manufacturing firm to the halls of Congress, from wartime shipyards to the contentious world of fine art. In doing so, he took on many roles: innovative industrialist, camouflage artist, and art detective. By following Toch’s life we also follow the broadening and deepening place of chemistry and the chemist in modern America.

 Maximilian Toch was born in 1864 into the Jewish immigrant community of New York’s Lower East Side. His father, Moses, had emigrated from Bohemia (part of today’s Czech Republic) after the European uprisings of 1848 had given way to political stagnation and suppression. Moses, and the two brothers who followed him, quickly built a business importing and selling paints and varnishes. Over the following decades the firm of Toch Brothers ventured into manufacturing, and the brothers achieved a modest prosperity.

The young Maximilian had an aptitude and an appetite for science. As a teen he became one of the last students of New York University chemist John W. Draper, a pioneer of photographic technology. From Draper, Toch gained a firm grounding in experimental chemistry and a lifelong passion for photography. In addition to a degree in chemistry Toch took a degree in law, both useful for a career in the patent-heavy paint industry. He augmented his studies with an 1885 tour of Germany, where he attended lectures given by some of the world’s leading chemists. After the last of the original three Toch brothers died in 1886, Maximilian and his elder brother Henry took up the reins of the company. The young chemist set to work developing new paints and ended up helping undermine a centuries-long understanding of what made a paint good.

Paint has long been more than an artist’s medium. European painters first used oil paints in the 14th century, and since then these paints have decorated and protected houses, carriages, ships, and other artifacts. Then as now, paint was a thin film of pigments dispersed within a liquid binder that dried when exposed to air. The most common pigment was white lead, a complex of lead carbonate and lead hydroxide, found in virtually every paint preparation as a white base. To get the desired tint, painters added small quantities of colorful pigments, such as Prussian blue, verdigris, or vermilion, to the white lead. The most common binder was linseed oil, extracted from seeds of the flax plant. Paint manufacturers and dealers sold these ingredients separately, and painters ground pigments with oil to prepare a paste of a particular consistency and color.

When Toch took his place in the family firm in the late 1880s, the paint industry was growing tremendously, fueled by a construction boom, advances in production technology, and more rapid extraction of such natural resources as lead. Increasing competition pushed manufacturers to devise less expensive formulas; some did so by covertly replacing a portion of the white lead with cheaper substances called inert fillers: clay, chalk, silica, barytes, and gypsum. Such a departure from established ingredients—linseed oil, white lead, and colors like verdigris—was considered adulteration. Angry consumers demanded pure paint; manufacturers in turn tended to present paints as “absolutely pure” no matter what they contained. But the new techniques and instruments of analytical chemists, unprecedented in their reliability and accuracy, put such assertions to the test. As American students studying in Germany brought these procedures back to the United States, paint manufacturers and painters began to hire chemists to tell them how close paint ingredients came to their ideal of purity.