Why Are Barns Red?

We all know why the sky is blue (right?). But why is one of the most familiar American icons, the red barn, red?

In American Barns and Covered Bridges (Dover Publications, 2003), Eric Sloane notes  that weather was an important consideration in planning a barn. The early builder mapped routes of sunshine, wind and water drainage. He paid careful attention to the health and comfort of his animals, as well as to the protection and preservation of barn timbers and stored grain. Early 18th-century bridges and barns went unpainted. The right wood in the right place, it was discovered, needed no paint. Even houses in the earliest settlements were not painted. Until . . .

As Grit (the magazine you could make extra money selling in your spare time) points out: “By the late 1700s, the art of wood seasoning gave way to the art of artificial preservation. Virginia farmers were the first to become paint-conscious. In Pennsylvania, the Dutch settlements latched on to the custom of red bricks, red barns, red geraniums, even reddish-brown cows.”

Red paint combined with linseed oil was also used to prevent certain organisms from decaying the wood. But there is more lore:

Wealthy farmers added blood from a recent slaughter, and as the paint dried, it turned from a bright red to a darker, burnt red. Moreover, ferrous oxide or rust was often added.

Rust was plentiful on farms and is a poison to many fungi, including mold and moss, which were known to grown on barns. These fungi would trap moisture in the wood, increasing decay.

A red barn became a fashionable thing that contrasted well with traditional white farmhouses.

11 thoughts on “Why Are Barns Red?

  1. Pingback: iconic american red barns « it's all lies

  2. Pingback: iconic american red barns « it's all lies

  3. chris gargan

    from ‘how stuff works’:

    In historically accurate terms, “barn red” is not the bright,fire-engine red that we often see today, but more of a burnt-orange red. As to how the oil mixture became traditionally red, there are two predominant theories:

    Wealthy farmers added blood from a recent slaughter to the oil mixture. As the paint dried, it turned from a bright red to a darker, burnt red.
    Farmers added ferrous oxide, otherwise known as rust, to the oil mixture. Rust was plentiful on farms and is a poison to many fungi, including mold and moss, which were known to grown on barns. These fungi would trap moisture in the wood, increasing decay.

    Regardless of how the farmer tinted his paint, having a red barn became a fashionable thing. They were a sharp contrast to the traditional white farmhouse.
    If you’re going to lift stuff in whole or part, please credit the writing and research. It’s at the core of design ethics.
     

  4. Dusty

    Binney & Smith, now famous for it’s Crayola crayons, was originally a pigment company started in the 1800s and a good portion of thier business was providing the red oxides for Barn Red paint.

  5. Steven Heller Post author

    This in from Ralph Caplan:
     
    “…did you know or remember that Henry Dreyfuss insisted that one of the most common questions he got when people learned that he was a designer was ‘Why are barns painted red?'”

COMMENT