September 25, 2006

Rust(ic) Barns and Why They're Red

Driving through Connecticut with my Dad and brother this weekend, someone in the car asked, "why do you think barns are mostly red?".

Now, given that the three of us are genetically predisposed to strong opinions (presented as fact) and liking to hear ourselves talk about theory on just about any topic, the silence that followed was highly unusual. I was sufficiently moved enough to google this question as soon as the next free moment arrived.

I found some interesting theories and myths about the origins of the red barn craze. The most interesting (i.e. coherent and short) and perhaps plausible (i.e. it doesn't cause my skeptic alarm to sound) explanation was found here, and copied for you here:

Centuries ago, European farmers would seal the wood on their barns with an oil, often linseed oil -- a tawny-colored oil derived from the seed of the flax plant. They would paint their barns with a linseed-oil mixture, often consisting of additions such as milk and lime. The combination produced a long-lasting paint that dried and hardened quickly. (Today, linseed oil is sold in most home-improvement stores as a wood sealant.) Now, where does the red come from?

In historically accurate terms, "barn red" is not the bright, fire-engine red that we often see today, but more of a burnt-orange red. As to how the oil mixture became traditionally red, there are two predominant theories:

  • 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, to the oil mixture. Rust was plentiful on farms and is a poison to many fungi, including mold and moss, which were known to grown on barns. These fungi would trap moisture in the wood, increasing decay.
Regardless of how the farmer tinted his paint, having a red barn became a fashionable thing. They were a sharp contrast to the traditional white farmhouse.

As European settlers crossed over to America, they brought with them the tradition of red barns. In the mid to late 1800s, as paints began to be produced with chemical pigments, red paint was the most inexpensive to buy. Red was the color of favor until whitewash became cheaper, at which point white barns began to spring up.

Huh, tinted with blood eh? Well, that's kind of, er, disturbing. I don't think I'll ever be able to look at a quaint country barn in a field somewhere and feel that sweet nostalgic wave again. (Shudder)

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