Why Are Barns Painted Red?

Have you ever wondered why so many barns are painted red? Ever since I moved to Lewes, Delaware, it is rare the day that I don’t see a red barn. The idea of a red barn against the green grass all around is familiar to most people in this area, and there are different stories to explain it. Some people used to say that farmers painted the barns red so that the cows could find their way home. Others believed that it was to mimic the color of brick. The real reason might surprise you.

Many years ago, barns weren’t painted at all. They didn’t have paint color choices and sealers, and farmers needed to find a way to protect and seal their barns. They used linseed oil, which comes from the seeds of the flax plant. The oil is an orange color, and farmers added substances to it, one of which was ferrous oxide, or rust.

The result was a red colored barn that was protected from the elements so that it would hold up over time. The ferrous oxide turned the mixture red, and once paints were invented, people continued to paint their barns red to follow the centuries-old tradition. Continue reading to learn all about why barns are painted red.

How Did Farmers Make the Barns Red Before They Had Paint?

Before paint existed, farmers would build their barns, and they needed to find a way to protect the wood from the elements. Rain, wind, sun, and snow can wear down wood over time. In fact, today people paint fences, barns, homes, and other wood that is exposed to the elements for this exact reason. Farmers used the resources available to them to protect the wood.

They would take linseed oil, which is derived from the seeds of the flax plant. The oil has an orange color to it, and they would add other resources to the oil. They added milk, lime, and ferrous oxide. Ferrous oxide is rust, and it is useful because it helps prevent mosses and fungi from growing on the barn. It also works well as a sealant. The ferrous oxide combined with the orange linseed oil is red in color. This is why the barns were red.

Why Did People Continue to Paint Barns Red After Paint Was Invented?

In the mid 1800s, they began to produce paints that had chemical pigments to give them color. At that time, red was an affordable color. Farmers have always been known for their frugality. When you have hundreds or thousands of live animals to feed, you don’t have extra money to buy fancy colored paint for your barn. Red remained the most common paint color choice for barns until whitewash became less expensive. Typically, people had a white farmhouse and a red barn, but once whitewash became more affordable, people started painting barns white as well.

Today, you can still find many red barns. People paint a lot of them red out of tradition. It is hard to forget the image of the traditional red barn. However, many other colors are found, including white and gray. You will find black barns in Kentucky and Virginia because they are better for drying tobacco leaves. Today there are many different colors available and affordable, so people have a lot of choices.

Are There Other Reasons Why People Paint Barns Red?

One reason is certainly the tradition. Just like why painters wear white. When you picture a barn in the American countryside, it is usually a large structure painted red. It isn’t a bright fire engine red color, but more of a burnt red due to the ferrous oxide. Although this tradition started for practical reasons, it continued for a few others.

One group of people who immigrated to America were Northern European farmers. They came from Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. For their culture, red brick structures were a sign of wealth. Some say that they painted their barns red to show that they were successful farmers.

Some of the wealthy farmers also used to add pig’s blood from a fresh slaughter to their linseed oil mixture to give the color a burnt red hue. They were considered wealthy farmers, so it was also a sign of success and prosperity.

Another theory was that the red barn would stand out to the cows and help them find their way back to the barn at the end of the day. However, that theory has since been debunked, as cows are known to be colorblind, and they return to the barn based on their instincts and habits.

It is amazing that the tradition of painting barns red has persisted even once different colored paints were readily available. The reality is that people can paint their barns any color they choose, and the waterproofing products available today will protect the wood from the elements. However, the iconic red barn stands out as a symbol of America, and people often keep this tradition alive.

What Other Colors Do People Paint Barns Today?

Today, people can choose any color they want for their barns. Many barns are still painted what is called “barn red” today, but people choose other colors as well. White and light gray are popular choices because they reflect the heat and light from the sun, which helps to keep the barn cooler in the summer. Lighter paint colors, in general, will make any structure appear larger than it is.

People also choose greens and browns to blend the barn into the landscape. These colors are more common near mountains and forests or woods. Darker colors, including dark browns and black, will absorb heat, so they are not popular in warmer climates.

Closing Thoughts

You may have heard different stories about why barns are painted red, but you probably wouldn’t have guessed that it started before paint even existed. Farmers are resourceful and thrifty, and they used what was readily available to protect the wood structures from the elements. It happened that a mixture of linseed oil and ferrous oxide came out in a rust red color. Today, people continue to paint barns red out of tradition, but they can be any color.

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