Whenever I leave the urban landscape and go out driving in the country, certain things tend to catch my eye. One particular scene that always makes my head turn is a red barn on a hillside. The pop of color often draws me in. I have always wondered, though: Why red?
It turns out, the practice started in the late 18th century with New England farmers applying a protective varnish to barn surfaces. The varnish usually contained some mixture of linseed oil, lime, or iron oxide, which, under the sun, would then turn to the red ochre hue that we have become so familiar with. Eventually, as red paint became available, many people stuck to the color tradition. It doesn’t hurt that red paint is one of the cheapest colors available to purchase (this is because the large amount of iron and oxygen compounds in the paint are plentiful in the Earth)! And, perhaps because of the pop of color they provide, barns are well represented in some of our architecturally-oriented color photograph collections—especially the Carol M. Highsmith Archive.
The red barn is certainly an iconic image– as seen in the photos below, the hue has been applied to all manner of barn-like structures. John Margolies captured several in his survey of Roadside America structures.
- In 2003, the Library of Congress and W.W. Norton & Company launched the Visual Sourcebooks in Architecture, Design and Engineering series with its first book, Barns, by John Michael Vlach. Read about the series launch, gather information about the book, and watch a lecture by John Michael Vlach, as he speaks about the book.
- View other images from the Carol Highsmith Archive of barns of various colors, shapes, and sizes!
- Search the Historic American Building Survey for images and drawings of barns.
- Library of Congress Reference librarians have provided answers to just the type of “I wonder why” question that helped me learn about why barns are red. Check out Everyday Mysteries: Fun Science Facts from the Library of Congress!
Look at barns and other buildings in Sweden where the red color has been used since the early Middle Ages
Indeed it’s a long-standing practice in other parts of the world. Thank you for pointing out the history of the red barn in Sweden, in particular!
That’s right. Iron oxide was used from the mining tracts of Falun in Sweden. The color is still today called Faluröd. Although iron oxide has been used for thousands of years as a paint pigment, in Sweden it was apparently an attempt by the noblemen of the 16th century to mimic the brick and terracotta of European buildings.
Fascinating! It’s interesting to see how the process varied around the world, and the reasons behind it. Thank you so much for sharing this with us!
Just curious…. anyone see and/or know of a non-red barn?
Yes- in fact we have pictures of non-red barns in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog! Another color we see frequently is white, like in this Carol Highsmith photograph: //www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/highsm.40682/ and this oddly-shaped one from the Historic American Building Survey: //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/in0254.color.572135c/resource/
Beautiful photographs! Thanks for sharing! Being a lover of the mountains, especially the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, it’s always amazing to see the different styles of barns nestled in the rolling hills of those mountains. If those barns could tell their stories, I wonder what we would hear.