There are three reasons we see so many red American barns. It’s traditional, it’s practical and the color looks good. Although the main reason to paint wooden buildings is for appearances, paint also protects the wood, so it lasts longer. Rust was plentiful on farms and because it killed fungi and mosses that might grow on barns, it 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.
Why are barns red?
During the 1700s and early 1800s, barns on family farms in the Northeast United States. were typically covered with thick vertical boards. When they were left unpainted, the boards would slowly weather to a brownish-gray color. But after the mid-1800s, to improve the efficiency of their barns by reducing drafts to help keep their animals more comfortable in winter, many farmers tightened up their barns by having wooden clapboards horizontally nailed on the outside barn walls. These clapboards were sawed quite thin, so painting them provided needed protection and dressed up the appearance of the barns.
Iron oxide was used from the mining tracts of Falun in Sweden. The color is still today called Faluröd. Although iron oxide has been used for thousands of years as a paint pigment, in Sweden it was apparently an attempt by the noblemen of the 16th century to mimic the brick and terracotta of European buildings.
In the 1800s it was common for people to make their own paints by mixing pigments with linseed oil made from flax seeds and other ingredients. Pigments are dry materials that add color. They were available in various hues, but the tint we see so often on older American barns was called Venetian red.
Venetian red got its name because historically this pigment was produced from natural clays found near Venice, Italy. The clay contained an iron oxide compound that produced this red color. But as people found similar iron oxide deposits in many other places, “Venetian red” became a generic term for light red pigments that did not have any purplish tinge. By the 1920s, such “earth pigments” used to make red paints were being dug in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Alabama, California, Iowa and Vermont.
Venetian red was suitable for any common work, or for brickwork and outbuildings. This red pigment penetrated well into wooden barn boards and resisted fading when exposed to sunlight, so it could age gracefully for generations.
By the late 1850s, in addition to red, it became fashionable to paint barns with other color schemes, especially those designed to complement the architectural styles and finishes of owners’ houses. These included various hues of yellows, greens and browns. Also, white paint was commonly applied to barns and houses.
But red paint remained popular on many farms because it was the most affordable. In 1922 the Sears, Roebuck catalogue (page 970) offered red barn paint for just $1.43 per gallon, while other colors of house paints sold for at least $2.25 per gallon – nearly twice as much.
Today, many modern barns don’t resemble classic versions. Very large barns that hold hundreds of cows or pigs look more like hangars or warehouses and may be built of metal. But the tradition of painting smaller barns red continues – so strongly that the U.S. Postal Service now celebrates them on postage stamps.
These stamps, released January 24, 2021, show a round barn surrounded by the hazy light and warm colors of fall; a gambrel-roofed barn in summer; a forebay barn in an early spring countryside; and a Western barn on a winter’s night. USPS, artwork by Kim Johnson, CC BY-ND
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