Why Are Barns Red

Answering the Question: Why are Barns Red?

Picturesque and quaint, old homesteads dot landscapes across the country; one repeated similarity that is noted when driving through the countryside often raises the curious question of “why are barns red?”  While there is no proof as to the reason, there is a pretty good explanation for the phenomenon that actually may have gotten its start around the year 10000 B.C.

History of red paint

During the Upper Paleolithic period which occurred between 40,000 and 10,000 B.C., the Magdalenian’s of Europe created endless portrayals of life through cave paintings.  These life inscriptions are thought to be the oldest in history and the beginning of art.  Many of these caves are not open for public viewing to preserve the delicate carvings on the walls, ceilings and floors.  The art began as simple finger markings in soft clay on the floors of caves; it then evolved into more intricate markings made with flints and picks, with the addition of painting later.  Colors were derived from the most base of ingredients that nature could provide; iron oxide, water and oil.  This paint was mixed together by hand, often in makeshift containers such as shells and skulls. The art left behind by this creative people has given great insight into the past of lifestyles and life forms and provided a basis to build upon for the future in art and paint.

Later, proof that Native Americans used this knowledge according to their needs.  Clay provided the iron oxide, which was mixed with the whites of eggs to concoct a stain that was spread upon a variety of surfaces to color them.  Sometimes, the blood of slaughtered livestock was added to give the stain a deeper, richer coloration.  When the stain was used on outdoor objects, it was discovered that the coloring was neither stable nor durable. 

Bringing the red to barns

Barns were essential buildings for early settlers as shelter to their livestock.  Milk cows, teams of oxen and riding horses were housed in the barns, as well as rudimentary farming equipment and hay.  They were considered to be necessary and not for show, so they were often quite plainly erected and allowed to weather.  The weatherization required that the planks be replaced often; a strain on both labor and materials.  To prevent the weatherization, these early farmers leaned upon the expertise of their forefathers by combining iron oxide, skimmed milk and oil derived from linseed to produce a stain that, when applied to wood, formed a durable and long lasting protective coating.  The practice of painting the barn with this red stain grew to be tradition, mainly because of its low cost and high availability.

Many people wonder, since cost was obviously an issue, why these farmers didn’t simply use whitewash to cover the barns, as it was commonly used on plank wood houses and buildings.  Whitewash is a mixture of lime and chalk; both substances were readily available in the Midwestern and Northeastern United States and frequently used to provide white coloration to homes and buildings.  However clean looking whitewash may have been, it did not possess the strength that red pigmentation had and lacked durability.  It was also easily transferable when rubbed against; a negative factor given the amount of activity that occurred around the barn.  Therefore, the tradition of whitewashed homes and fences with red barns was born.

Driving through the countryside where stately white homes flanked by bright red barns are lined up along farm roads often brings up the curious question of “why are barns red?”  While there is no documented proof that our earliest of forefathers began the trend when they first dabbled in red paint, it is entirely plausible that this knowledge was passed down through the generations to result in the tradition of red barns we know today.