Why are Barns Red?

By Charles Leik

Charles Leik is the Editor of The Barn Journal.

This is the all-time most popular FAQ at The Barn Journal. Often the question is posed by a school teacher who has been stumped by a classroom of precocious 4th graders but recently it was from either a student or faculty member at Dartmouth. I’ve always been a bit unsatisfied with my answer but maybe there isn’t a clear concise answer. So I need your help!

I’d like to have some fun with this and solicit all of you to respond with your "best shot". Please read my explanation below and respond with your ideas and comments to the Barn Guestbook. With input from throughout North America I think we’re going to improve on my explanation!

Ferric oxide (rust), a primary component of red paint, is inexpensive and this appealed to the thrifty farmers of New England and New York State. Red is the predominant barn color in that region. Natives of these areas were the early settlers of the Great Lakes states migrating there via the Erie Canal and the Lakes. I grew up in central Michigan and there were only a few non-red barns in our area. Two nearby farmers had gray buildings and soon one of them opted for white, which was also a rare color. I conclude that the early settlers brought their red barn tradition (and thriftiness) with them, and this was followed by the later immigrants (Germans in our area) who came directly from Europe. I believe this red barn tradition is also true in central and northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. Can anyone confirm this?

In Michigan, the older three bay English style barns with gable roofs and built before 1900 were often unpainted and now after a century of weathering the hard knots stand in relief from the softer clear lumber. Unpainted barns are generally found in the poorer northern farming regions of the Lake States, in Appalachia and the South.

But how do you explain the predominantly white barns of Pennsylvania, central Maryland, and the Shenandoah Valley, and those in the Corn Belt states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa?. The later states are directly in the path of early Pennsylvania/Maryland migration along the National Road (I-70 today). I’m sure the Germanic farmers of the mid-Atlantic region were no less frugal than their New England counterparts. Is the answer then less the cheaper cost of red paint and more ethnic traditions? I believe red and white barns west of the original thirteen states roughly conform to the path of settlement. What do you think?

One reader hypothesized that white barns became popular with the beginning of commercial dairying (as contrasted with subsistence farming) that began with urbanization and the availability of rail transport after the Civil War. His thesis is that white suggests the idea of cleanliness and purity—both good associations for milk. Maybe this was the period when farmers began to annually whitewash interior stable walls and it was a natural progression to transfer white to the exterior. Do any historians have a reaction to this thesis?

Although most barns have either red, white or weathered exteriors, other colors were used especially at "show farms" that raised horses or purebred livestock. The Hanover farms in Pennsylvania were yellow, green is found in the Virginia horse country, and black in Kentucky’s Bluegrass.

Trim and ornamentation is a related subject that should be the subject of a separate article. This would include hex signs, the owner’s name written by a pattern of different colored roof shingles, Mail Pouch advertisements, and the cloverleaf and horseshoe symbols that I recall on the barn doors of central Michigan.

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