Why Are Barns Red?

18th-century farmers discovered secret to barn preservation.

  • iStockRedBarn


  • iStockRedBarn

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.

3/23/2018 8:00:25 AM

I would like to do a video on red barns and narrate this wonderful article. Then possibly have it shown on our local Spectrum community access tv channel 192. How can I get in touch with the author Catherine Lazers Bauer to get permission? My contact info is Victoria vfoulke01@gmail.com. Thank you! Please do not post my contact info if you can?

12/1/2017 6:30:00 AM

In Kentucky, white barns are used for milking cows since white reflects the summer heat and keeps the barn cooler. Tobacco barns are painted black since black absorbs the heat and cures our burley tobacco.

12/1/2017 6:29:58 AM

In Kentucky barns used for milking cows are white since white reflects the heat and keeps the barn cooler. Tobacco barns are black, they absorb the heat and help cure the tobacco.

Live The Good Life with GRIT!

Grit JulAug 2016At GRIT, we have a tradition of respecting the land that sustains rural America. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing to GRIT through our automatic renewal savings plan. By paying now with a credit card, you save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of GRIT for only $16.95 (USA only).

Or, Bill Me Later and send me one year of GRIT for just $22.95!

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter

Free Product Information Classifieds Newsletters