Color and Symbols

By Heber Bouland

Early barns were not painted. Painting was considered extravagant, vulgar, and showy, and many farmers couldn’t afford it.  In the mid-20th century, many barns in the South and Appalachia were still not painted.  Even if a barn has been painted once, it is often not repainted but instead is left to fade over time.  Unpainted, faded, bleached weathered barn timbers have a certain esthetic appeal.  Eric Sloane, a 20th-century barn artist and writer, says there is a certain beauty of wood “in a state of pleasing decay” with moss and lichens.  He calls this one of “Natures’s special masterpieces” (Sloan, Age of Barns, p. 13).  Products stored in the barn such as hay, stray, tobacco, and corn add subtle mellow colorful tones to the barn. 

In the early 19th century, northern and mid-Atlantic farmers started painting their barns a dark red.  Several theories exist on why red was such a popular color for barns.  Some barn authorities claim it was the Scandinavian influence; they used red to simulate brick and wealth.  Others say it was an abundance of stock blood or iron oxide that could be mixed with milk to make red paint. Others suggested it was esthetics - the red paint complemented the green fields.  Yet another theory suggests it was a supply and demand tradition.  Farmers, when asked why they painted their barns red, replied, “red paint is so available and cheap.”  If paint manufacturers asked why they produced so much red paint, they said, “because so many farmers want it.”  In any event, a rich dark red has become the symbolic barn color in America.

Other colors are also used on barns.  White is another popular barn color, along with gray, blue, and green.  In the counties of central Kentucky, such as Mercer County, barns and fences and other farm buildings are painted black.  Sometimes they are trimmed in white but are often painted completely black.  This color scheme came from the tradition of using lamp black and diesel fuel as a cheap wood preservative.  Old adobe barns of the Southwest were earthen color. 

The Pennsylvania barns used hex signs for decorations, and contrary to popular belief, were seldom used to ward off evil spirits.  Haciendas in the Southwest had religious symbols and icons, for example, paintings and statues of the Holy Family.


This article is reprinted with permission, from Barns Across America (p. 120) by Heber Bouland.


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