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A Closer Look: Why Barns Are Red

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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?

<em>A stunningly red barn in Crook County, north of Moorcroft, Wyoming.</em> Photograph by Carol Highsmith, 2015-08-22. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.34177
A stunningly red barn in Crook County, north of Moorcroft, Wyoming. Photograph by Carol Highsmith, 2015-08-22. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.34177

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.

Vivid red barn in East Texas. Photograph by Carol Highsmith, 2014-05-19. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.29159
Vivid red barn in East Texas. Photograph by Carol Highsmith, 2014-05-19. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.29159
Farm scene including a bright-red barn, three silos (one vintage, two modern), and quite modern wind turbines in Hardin County, Iowa. Photograph by Carol Highsmith, 2016-08-17. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.39861
Farm scene including a bright-red barn, three silos (one vintage, two modern), and quite modern wind turbines in Hardin County, Iowa. Photograph by Carol Highsmith, 2016-08-17. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.39861

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.

Barn, Jackson Golf World, Route 51, Jackson, Mississippi. Photograph by John Margolies, 1986. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/mrg.02627
Barn, Jackson Golf World, Route 51, Jackson, Mississippi. Photograph by John Margolies, 1986. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/mrg.02627
Back of the Barn Antiques sign, Routes 12 & 28, Steuben, New York. Photograph by John Margolies, 1995. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/mrg.01774
Back of the Barn Antiques sign, Routes 12 & 28, Steuben, New York. Photograph by John Margolies, 1995. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/mrg.01774
Red Barn Restaurant, Route 67, Texarkana, Arkansas. Photograph by John Margolies, 1979. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/mrg.01292
Red Barn Restaurant, Route 67, Texarkana, Arkansas. Photograph by John Margolies, 1979. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/mrg.01292
Annual farm and home week. Poster by Work Projects Administration Federal Art Project, 1941. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3f03742
Annual farm and home week. Poster by Work Projects Administration Federal Art Project, 1941. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3f03742

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Comments (7)

  1. 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!

  2. 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!

  3. Just curious…. anyone see and/or know of a non-red barn?

  4. 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.

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