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Why Are Barns Painted Red?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Why do so many farmers paint their barns red? It's one of life's enduring mysteries, but today we're going to find the answer, and talk about how this reflects American colonial history.

The Red Barn Conundrum

There are some things in this world that everyone wonders, but not many people really know the answer to. Why exactly does gravity work? How do you stop the inside of your nose from freezing when it's cold? Where do things go when you upload them to the Internet? Anyone who's ever lived in or driven through a rural part of this country has probably also asked the following question: why does everyone paint their barn red? Yes, it's cool color, but why barns? I've heard many theories over time, some people think it's a law that barns must be red, some think it's to aggravate bulls and keep them distracted, but really it's pretty simple. Barns are red because that's the color they've always been. Well, almost always. Today, we paint barns red out of tradition, but how did this practice first begin? For that answer we'll have to take a trip through rural America…a few hundred years ago.

A typical red barn
Barn

!18th-Century American Barns

To unravel this agrarian conundrum, we need to look back to the 18th century, when English settlers in the American colonies were setting up new farms. These colonists generally did not have a lot of extra wealth (if they were rich they would have stayed in England) and they had to do without things like paints. So, their barns generally went unpainted. Now, paint on a barn is about more than aesthetics, it's also about protecting the wood from the elements. These New Englander farmers realized that not covering their barns with a paint, stain, or varnish was a problem as the wood began deteriorating quickly. They needed a new solution.

Colonial farmers often had to make do with what they had
Colonial farming

To treat the wood, New England farmers turned to a variety of innovative mixtures. In chemistry terms, they literally found solutions. Get it? One common recipe started with linseed oil, which was inexpensive and made for an effective sealant. The oil by itself stained the wood orange. However, farmers added other ingredients to the oil as well. To get the consistency of paint, to ensure that the mixture would stick to the wood, farmers combined skimmed milk and lime (the calcium-based mineral, not the fruit).

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