We all know why the sky is blue (right?). But why is one of the most familiar American icons, the red barn, red?

In American Barns and Covered Bridges (Dover Publications, 2003), Eric Sloane notes  that weather was an important consideration in planning a barn. The early builder mapped routes of sunshine, wind and water drainage. He paid careful attention to the health and comfort of his animals, as well as to the protection and preservation of barn timbers and stored grain. Early 18th-century bridges and barns went unpainted. The right wood in the right place, it was discovered, needed no paint. Even houses in the earliest settlements were not painted. Until . . .

As Grit (the magazine you could make extra money selling in your spare time) points out: “By the late 1700s, the art of wood seasoning gave way to the art of artificial preservation. Virginia farmers were the first to become paint-conscious. In Pennsylvania, the Dutch settlements latched on to the custom of red bricks, red barns, red geraniums, even reddish-brown cows.”

Red paint combined with linseed oil was also used to prevent certain organisms from decaying the wood. But there is more lore:

Wealthy farmers added blood from a recent slaughter, and as the paint dried, it turned from a bright red to a darker, burnt red. Moreover, ferrous oxide or rust was often added.

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.

A red barn became a fashionable thing that contrasted well with traditional white farmhouses.

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by Steven Heller
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