If you’ve spent a lot of time in the country, or spent a lot of time on the road watching the scenery go by, you might have noticed that most barns seem to be the same few colors. One of our patrons wanted to find out why that was.
Curiosity.discovery.com and farmersalmanac.com both tackled the question, and Barns of the Midwest, edited by Allen G. Noble and Hubert G. H. Wilhelm, devotes an entire chapter to barn décor. As it turns out, there’s conflicting information on the subject.
The Curiosity and Farmers’ Almanac articles give the same basic theory: hundreds of years ago, European farmers would seal their barns with linseed oil mixed with milk or lime, which gave the wood a sort of yellowish-brown color. The red paint began to emerge when they began to either mix in animal blood or rust. The rust had the added bonus of killing off the moss or mold that could grow on the wood.
Barns of the Midwest agrees that the red color developed when farmers began to mix in blood or rust, though the book doesn’t mention the rust’s anti-fungal and herbicidal properties, only its aesthetic value. In fact, David T. Stephens, the author of the chapter, argues that, at least at first, more barns were white than red, since whitewash was the cheapest option. This is in sharp opposition to curiosity.discovery.com – according to that article, red paint was popular until the cost of whitewash went down.
Stephens agrees, though, that by 1872, red paint had gotten much cheaper than white. When ready-mixed paint came on the market, red was the color most commonly marketed specifically toward barns. It may have also been a popular color because of how striking it looked against the landscape, or because red would absorb more heat in winter than white.
Barns of the Midwest goes on to list yellow, gray, green, and blue as the most common barn colors, in order of popularity, after red and white. Red with white trim is the most popular combination, followed by white with green trim and white with black trim.
We have several books here at the Newton Falls Public Library with pictures of barns and information and nostalgic reminiscences on farm life. This Old Farm, edited by Michael Dregini, Farm by Grant Heilman, Old Barns of Gustavus, Ohio by Patricia Jeffers, The Barn by Eric Arthur and Dudley Witney, An Age of Barns by Eric Sloane, and Down on the Farm with commentary by Steward H. Holbrook, are all available for borrowing.