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Monthly Q&A: Why are Barns Painted Red?

This month's question was submitted by MB.


The Truth Behind Red Barns

There are several theories as to why barns are painted red. One belief is that barns are red so a farmer’s cows can find their way home, but if so, that’s a failed strategy since cattle are colorblind to the colors red and green. Barns weren’t originally red, in fact, they weren’t painted at all.

By the late 1700s, farmers began looking for ways to shield their barns’ wood from the elements and began experimenting with ways to make their own protective paint. They discovered that skimmed milk, lime, and red iron oxide made a plastic-like coating that hardened quickly and lasted for years.

Linseed oil was subsequently added to the recipe to provide the necessary soaking quality. Wealthy farmers added blood from a recent slaughter to the oil mixture. As the paint dried, it turned from a bright red to a darker, burnt red. Farmers added ferrous oxide, otherwise known as rust as well. Rust was plentiful on farms and was known to kill many fungi, mold and moss, which were known to grow on barns.

Farmers also noticed that painting their barns with the homemade paint kept the buildings warmer during the wintertime. Red paint spread in popularity due to its functionality and convenience, becoming an American tradition.

Dept. of Archaeology & Historic Preservation

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