That blue-sky painted ceiling on southern porches is a pretty and powerful moat to keep ghostly apparitions that drift and fly away from the front door. In cities all over the Deep South, from Beaufort to Charleston to Savannah to Naw'leans, you can find light blue porch paint standing guard over antebellum plantations, Georgian townhouses, Lowcountry Federal-style mansions, Creole cottages and shotgun shacks. Ask and people will whisper dire warnings about haints with only the fleetest of smiles. Or they'll just shrug and tell you it's always been like that. There are reasons beyond looks for haint-blue ceilings over the porch. Get your story straight and then get your paintbrush out.
Gullahs and Ghosts
The rich folklore and relative isolation of the African slaves imported to work coastal American rice plantations is the source of the haint legends told for generations in the South. Haints are the spirits of the dead, restless souls who have not or cannot move on from the world of the living and delight in bedeviling the hapless humans who cross their paths. As the Gullah people of the Sea Islands tell it, you could be "taken" by a haint.
A haint would wrap his cold dead fingers around your living throat. Any mischief not immediately explainable could be attributed to haints -- and they were often malicious, accursed spirits to be feared. But haints are phobic about water -- they will not cross or go near water, so a blue ceiling is an effective barrier against the devious wraiths hovering just beyond the porch. Those gullible haints are easily fooled into thinking the blue ceiling is a water barrier; once they spot it they will slink away. The original color varied from ice blue to turquoise to aqua to teal to deeper blue, depending on who was mixing the paint. But the protection was absolute and the color persists as a feature of contemporary homes; paint the porch ceiling blue, live to see another untroubled day.
Lime Wash and Little Critters
Before there were color chips in paint stores and custom-mixed quarts and gallons, there were pits in the yard where paint was mixed with color dye -- like indigo -- lime, and thickeners. Chalky lime has a high alkaline content so it acts as a disinfectant and bug repellent. In the days when fevers and epidemics could sweep through a population living in the humid swamp-like conditions mosquitoes love, blue ceiling paint made with lime may have offered some protection from malaria, dengue fever and other deadly illnesses.
The color also tends to discourage birds and hornets from building nests in the porch eaves -- they perceive the blue as endless sky and prefer more camouflage for their nesting sites. So, your genteel porch paint might really offer a fierce barrier to fluttering, buzzing and biting winged pests -- when it's not warding off those spine-chilling spooks that delight in rocking the porch chairs when no one is there.