The red barn has been synonymous with American life for centuries now, but the question as to why barns are red has eluded many people.
Theories abound! My favorite is that the red barn helped the cows find their way home. Sadly this doesn’t hold much water since cows are color blind to red and green, but surely there is a reason why the vast majority of barns are red, right?
Like many things that are a tradition, there was a functional reason for the start of the tradition and the red barn is no exception.
In the earliest days of American history, barns were largely left bare and unpainted since there were an accessory building and painting them would cost additional money they didn’t have. Unpainted wood weathers faster and is more susceptible to insects like termites so the farmers needed a cheap solution to their problems.
At first they began treating the wood with linseed oil to protect and strengthen it which gave it a very slight orange tint, but this didn’t protect as much as was needed, so some creative farmers used what they had a lot of. Rust.
Iron oxide was in no short supply on a farm. From the tools they used to the red clay they worked, it was readily available, and because it killed fungi and mosses that might grow on barns, it fit the bill perfectly.
Farmers began mixing rust with linseed oil and other things like milk to create their own cost effective paints and the red barn was born.
Farmers also noticed that painting their barns red kept the buildings warmer during the wintertime by absorbing more of the sun’s radiant heat.
So, why are barns red today? Just a like a lot of things, it’s tradition. Farmers have kept the tradition of the red barn alive because nothing says barn more than a red wooden structure.
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.