Why are barns red? Are they?
Returning to Essex, NY from yet another sensational Adirondack Coast bike ride last fall, I was struck by the abundance of red barns in the Champlain Valley. While I’m likely betraying a Northeastern United States bias, I suddenly realized that barns — almost all barns — are red.
Before you get persnickety and remind me that all barns are not red, before you point out that my very own barn is tan, and before you patronizingly remind me that sudden realizations are better kept quiet to avoid broadcasting embarrassing errors, humor me long enough to explain the decidedly unscientific experiment I undertook to test out my theory.
Why Are Barns Red?
For the next few days I posed the following question to anyone who would listen:
If I asked you to draw barn, what color would you make it?
I received one universal, unhesitating response. Red. Nobody said tan. Nobody skirted the question or offered a fuzzy, nuanced answer. What color are barns? Red.
Soft science? Perhaps. But what intrigued (and perplexed) me even more than the fact that everyone I asked shared my subconscious expectation that barns are red was why we all had the same answer. Why was our first instinct to color a barn red? Why are barns red? Is there an actual reason that barns are usually red?
I passed these questions along to my “test group”, and their answers, though varied, generally focused on a consistent theme.
- Red paint (or its predecessor) must have been easy to acquire or manufacture.
- Red paint must have originally been cheaper and/or more abundant.
- Red paint must preserve wood from rot better than other colors.
- Red paint must endure sun, rain and weather wear better than other colors.
As it turns out, most these guesses were pretty accurate. The short version: barns were painted red due to its usefulness. And a few people even surmised that the red ingredient for the original paint applied to barns might have been produced from rust. (Hat tip to Jim Carroll for getting that ball rolling…) A smart lot, my test group!
Official Explanation Why Barns Are [Often] Red
But just in case you’re feeling a bit dubious about my scientific method, I’ll pass the baton to more credible barn paint experts.
There are several theories as to why barns are painted red. Centuries ago, European farmers would seal the wood on their barns with an oil, often linseed oil — a tawny-colored oil derived from the seed of the flax plant. They would paint their barns with a linseed-oil mixture, often consisting of additions such as milk and lime. The combination produced a long-lasting paint that dried and hardened quickly. Today, linseed oil is sold in most home-improvement stores as a wood sealant. Now, where does the red come from? 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.
As European settlers crossed over to America, they brought with them the tradition of red barns. In the mid to late 1800s, as paints began to be produced with chemical pigments, red paint was the most inexpensive to buy. Red was the color of favor until whitewash became cheaper, at which point white barns began to spring up. (HowStuffWorks)
That’s wisdom, reader, in black and white to dispel all mysteries once and for all. Unless you’re still suspicious, in which case, The Farmer’s Almanac will take up the trivia question du jour.
Many years ago, choices for paints, sealers and other building materials did not exist. Farmers had to be resourceful in finding or making a paint that would protect and seal the wood on their barns. Hundreds of years ago, many farmers would seal their barns with linseed oil, which is an orange-colored oil derived from the seeds of the flax plant. To this oil, they would add a variety of things, most often milk and lime, but also ferrous oxide, or rust. Rust was plentiful on farms and because it killed fungi and mosses that might grow on barns, was very effective as a sealant. It turned the mixture red in color. When paint became more available, many people chose red paint for their barns in honor of tradition. (Farmers’ Almanac)
It smells a bit like overlapping research, no? Or perhaps the evidence is simply so strong, so clear, that the answer tumbles forth with such similarity again and again. And again:
Rust, it turns out, kills mold and other types of fungi, so farmers began adding ferrous oxide (rusted iron) to the linseed oil mix. A little bit of rust went a long way in protecting the wood, and gave the barn a nice red hue.
By the late 19th century, mass-produced paints made with chemical pigments became available to most people. Red was the least expensive color, so it remained the most popular for use on barns, except for a brief period when whitewash became cheaper and white barns started popping up…
Today, many barns are still painted the color traditionally used in a given region, with red still dominating the Northeast and Midwest. (Mental Floss)
The next time some creep asks you, “Why are barns red?” you’ll be ready to dazzle. Or befuddle. Good luck!