A Closer Look: Why Barns Are Red

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. //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. //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. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.29159

Vivid red barn in East Texas. Photograph by Carol Highsmith, 2014-05-19. //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. //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. //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. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/mrg.02627

Barn, Jackson Golf World, Route 51, Jackson, Mississippi. Photograph by John Margolies, 1986. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/mrg.02627

Back of the Barn Antiques sign, Routes 12 & 28, Steuben, New York. Photograph by John Margolies, 1995. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/mrg.01774

Back of the Barn Antiques sign, Routes 12 & 28, Steuben, New York. Photograph by John Margolies, 1995. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/mrg.01774

Red Barn Restaurant, Route 67, Texarkana, Arkansas. Photograph by John Margolies, 1979. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/mrg.01292

Red Barn Restaurant, Route 67, Texarkana, Arkansas. Photograph by John Margolies, 1979. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/mrg.01292

Annual farm and home week. Poster by Work Projects Administration Federal Art Project, 1941. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3f03742

Annual farm and home week. Poster by Work Projects Administration Federal Art Project, 1941. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3f03742

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