America’s rural scene is enlivened by the presence of bright red barns. Like architectural poppies, they dot the countryside with flashes of scarlet. In spring and summer, the bursts of red contrast vividly with green grass, leafing orchards and verdant fields. In late autumn, after the last leaf has fallen and the grass has yellowed, crimson barns lend energy to a drab and barren landscape. And how much redder could a barn be than when the surrounding land is blanketed in winter’s white?
But where, when and why did this phenomenon of barn painting begin?
Lewis Evans wrote in 1753, “It is pretty to behold our back settlements where barns are as large as palaces, while owners live in log huts, a sign of thrifty framing.” Strength and convenience were regarded as the most essential requisites in early American barns. European barns had been small, but early settlers built huge barns, symbols of expansive hopes and plans for life in the New World.
Farmhouses changed with trends in fashion from 1650 to 1850, but barns did not vary. Barn design, a standard symbol for the American farmer, remained a dignified hand-hewn structure with the same scrollwork that, in the late 1850s, decorated the farmer’s house.
In American Barns and Covered Bridges (Dover Publications, 2003), Eric Sloane points out that weather was always an important consideration in planning a barn. The early builder mapped routes of sunshine, wind and water drainage. He paid careful attention to the health and comfort of his animals, as well as to the protection and preservation of barn timbers and stored grain.
Early 18th-century bridges and barns went unpainted. The right wood in the right place, it was discovered, needed no paint. Even houses in the earliest settlements were not painted. To paint the barn would have been viewed not only as extravagant, but vulgar and showy.
Red catches on
However, by the late 1700s, the art of wood seasoning gave way to the art of artificial preservation. Virginia farmers were the first to become paint-conscious. In Pennsylvania, the Dutch settlements latched on to the custom of red bricks, red barns, red geraniums, even reddish-brown cows. When a Pennsylvania Dutch farmer added big ornamental designs to barns, “just for luck,” he was accused of designing a hex sign to frighten the devil. Many old-timers sneered at their neighbors’ newly painted barns and accused them of copying “those superstitious Germans of Pennsylvania.”
But color caught on. Inasmuch as ready-made paint was not available, a farmer mixed his own. He discovered that skimmed milk, lime and red iron oxide made a plastic-like coating that hardened quickly and lasted for years. Occasionally, it hardened too well and peeled off in sheets. Linseed oil was subsequently added to the recipe to provide the necessary soaking quality. Thus American “barn red” was born. It came into being through function and utility, rather than decor or superstition. It was soon discovered that the red barn color was warmer in winter since it absorbed the sun’s rays.
In the mid-19th century, skimmed milk was used in mixing paint.
The belief that barn red originated with American Indians actually has some foundation. Records indicate that, in accordance with an old American Indian custom, farm stock blood was indeed mixed with milk and used for staining interior surfaces. A pigment called “Indian Red” was made from clay mixed with whites of wild turkey eggs. Turkey blood was added to provide a deep mahogany shade. Stains using blood were not, however, suitable for outdoor use.
Red has remained the traditional color for most American barns, particularly in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States. We can thank our ingenious colonial forebears for this visually appealing, colorful heritage.
Catherine Lazers Bauer lives in Morrison, Colorado, and has had 650 essays, articles and stories published in national, regional and literary markets.