Imagine a bright red barn over sprawling greens. Throw in some cattle and silo for good measure, and you’ve just created what is among the most iconic images of rural life in America. But have you ever stopped to consider the red barn? Maintaining a shiny crimson coat sounds rather arduous, and probably expensive. Plus, this was likely even more so back in the old days. So why would a farmer do that? Why do we always think of red barns?
Why Are Barns Red? Some Barnyard Theories
There was once a running theory that early New England settlers got the idea to paint their barns red from Scandinavian farmers. Why would they rip off such a technique? Well, the Scandinavian farmers would in fact paint their barns red. For them, it was less about necessity and more about “because we can.” In Scandinavia, having a structure made of brick was seen as a symbol of wealth. If one couldn’t afford brick, they could at least paint their things red so it looked like brick from a distance.
This probably wasn’t a big priority for those New England farmers though, who were likely more concerned with general survival above all else. But they did end up with reddish barns too. Though it’s not because they wanted to look rich–in fact it was quite the opposite. Their barns were red because they were conserving resources instead.
Before we get to that though, let’s clear up one prevailing myth: Some think red paint was used to lure cattle back to the barn. Essentially, a red barn would act as a big beacon to bring wandering cows home. But given that cows are red-green colorblind, this is likely false.
Related post: What Is New England?
So Why the Red Hue?
Well, we alluded to the fact that the farmers arriving in New England didn’t really have the means to make paint a priority. So the first barns in North America were mostly unpainted. No surprise, we all have to start somewhere.
Eventually though, when barns started becoming a little more established, farmers wanted to protect them. It makes sense–exposure to the elements wasn’t great for the wood. So their first solution was a protective paint.
Fungi were one of the larger concerns for farmers back then, since it would literally eat into the wood. They’d also trap moisture in it, speeding up the rate at which it would rot. Specifically, farmers had to contend with molds and mosses.
Further Fungal Reading: What’s the Difference Between Mold and Mildew?
If fungi were the biggest problem for our farmers, it makes sense that they would want to coat their barns in something toxic to the fungal nuisances. And since rust is toxic to fungi, farmers started to mix rust into oils and such to make paint.
This does mean that the first red barns weren’t the bright hue you think of. While the rust would provide a reddish tint, it would have looked more red-orange than anything. We’re sure you’ve seen a rusty iron pole or something of the sort.
Why Did We Keep the Red Barns?
In addition to serving as protection from the elements, over time, farmers began to realize that their painted barns actually stayed warmer in the wintertime (the darker color did a better job of absorbing the sun’s rays). And so, given their practicality, red barns just sort of became a tradition.
This was only aided by the fact that when store-bought paints did become more available, red was among the cheapest to acquire. So it’s no stretch to see how red barns would become so popular. Of course, once white paint became cheaper than red, white barns started to become a thing too. But we’re a little partial to the original style.
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