Quest for Permanence

Paint manufacturers of the 19th and early 20th centuries emphasized the purity of their ingredients. The new instruments and techniques of chemistry put manufacturers’ claims of purity to the test. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-51233)

Paint manufacturers of the 19th and early 20th centuries emphasized the purity of their ingredients. The new instruments and techniques of chemistry put manufacturers’ claims of purity to the test. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-51233)

Paint, Purity, and Permanence

The conflation of purity with quality led to misleading marketing practices. “Ready-mixed” paint was a case in point. It was sold in cans, ready to be stirred and applied, and could be stored for long periods without separating. Manufacturers achieved this stability by adding silica, silicates, or similar minerals. Ready-mixed paint, in other words, depended on adulterants. Because of the association of purity with quality some manufacturers based their marketing efforts on subtle lies. “The lead in this package is guaranteed absolutely pure,” claimed one producer, who neglected to mention the other similarly “pure” inert fillers that also went into the package.

Toch was prominent among a fringe group of paint chemists who argued that something important had been overlooked: paints including inert fillers were in some cases more durable than pure paint. If permanence—the ability to resist decay and to prevent the decay of the paint-covered structures—were taken as the yardstick for quality, the impure paints were not just as good as pure paints; they were better. Redefining quality was critically important. “Rust and rats are the two greatest enemies of modern civilization,” Toch warned an audience of paint chemists and technologists. Paint could do little about the latter, but Toch dedicated his career—and the fortunes of his family firm—to developing paints that could prevent the former.

His primary focus was the interaction between paint materials and the steel and concrete that had become mainstays of urban architecture. He sought paints specially adapted to the job of protecting and beautifying the materials of the modern city, a search that led him to explore new materials. Toch’s first success was a paint made of asphalt and gutta-percha (a natural plastic). This paint protected underwater pipes and machinery against corrosion and sealed the brick walls of basements against outside damp. Toch Brothers brought it to market in 1892 as “R.I.W.” (“Remember, it’s waterproof”). Toch turned next to protecting iron and steel against rust, a job then-current paints that contained red lead did only moderately well. His new formula, which included alumina silicate and other components of Portland cement, increased the protective power of red lead, and Toch Brothers first sold it in 1903 as “Tockolith.”

Toch’s research program didn’t stop with industrial materials. He also took a keen interest in paintings, assembling the results of his research in his 1911 book, Materials for Permanent Painting. Toch agreed with many painters when it came to casting a skeptical eye on the exotic new colors then being offered, the brilliant but often impermanent coal tar–derived synthetic organic dyes. But he disagreed with painters who argued that only a return to the materials of the old masters could ensure the permanence of paintings. As his reputation grew, he mentored artists on their choice of paints, wrote more books, and advised painters and restorers on materials that could protect modern paintings and the work of old masters against such threats as urban air pollution.

By the late 1900s Toch could afford to indulge in this side interest because permanence had been good for business. Toch’s organic-acid formula that allowed paints to stick to concrete proved so popular that Toch Brothers couldn’t meet demand, and in 1906 the company elected to patent the product and license it to other manufacturers. By 1908 Tockolith, the ever-growing R.I.W. series, and other proprietary Toch Brothers products were in use in structures from the New York Public Library to the San Francisco branch of the U.S. Mint. As Toch delivered lectures and published articles in chemistry journals, the scientific reputation of Toch Brothers and its chief chemist grew in tandem.

Toch Brothers had answered the purity problem in its marketing; instead of promoting its paints’ purity, the firm promoted their laboratory origins. The change in message marked a turning point in the U.S. paint industry and in the status of industrial chemists, who gained a voice in the setting of standards and in designing products.

Yet Toch’s reconception of paint quality clashed with the beliefs of reformers dedicated to their own vision of modernization. “Adulteration” and “purity” were watchwords of the Progressive Era. Progressive reformers opposed late 19th-century “Gilded Age” corporations grown wealthy and powerful enough to ignore the interests of their workers and the safety of the public. Reformers wanted broader oversight over private industry and more action against such social ills as child labor, food poisoning, and environmental degradation. Toch shared these concerns and as president of the Sanitarium for Hebrew Children at Rockaway Park helped bring poor Jewish mothers and children from New York’s Lower East Side to the beach for fresh air, exercise, and healthful food.

Progressives found success with the 1906 passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Until then food inspection had largely been left to consumers. Unscrupulous manufacturers could boost profits by adding water to milk or chalk and plaster of Paris to wheat with little risk of punishment or even detection. The 1906 act instituted federal inspections of food and drugs, mandated labeling of contents, and prescribed criminal penalties for adulteration or mislabeling. Toch approved of such regulations; his own sanitarium had an on-site bacteriologist who guarded the milk supply against the depredations of careless manufacturers.