Curious Kids: Why are barns painted red? | Kiowa County Press

A dairy barn in Waitsfield, Vermont, built circa 1890. Thomas visser, CC BY-ND

Thomas Durant Visser, University of Vermont

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you would like an expert to answer, send it to [email protected]


Why are barns painted red? – Elijah B., 13, Waverly, Tennessee


There are three reasons we see so many American red barns. It’s traditional, it’s practical, and the color is beautiful.

While the primary reason for painting wood buildings is appearance, the paint also protects the wood so that it lasts longer.

During the 1700s and early 1800s, barns on family farms in the northeastern United States were typically covered with thick vertical planks. When unpainted, the planks slowly aged to a brownish gray color.

But after the mid-1800s, to improve the efficiency of their barns by reducing drafts to help keep their animals more comfortable in the winter, many farmers tightened their barns by having boards nailed down. wooden clapboard horizontally on the exterior walls of the barn. These clapboards were sawn fairly thinly, so painting them provided the necessary protection and dressed up the appearance of barns.

Horses in the field with red barn in the background.
Horses graze on a farm near Pullman, Washington. Wolfgang Kaehler / LightRocket via Getty Images

In the 1800s, it was common for people to make their own paints by mixing pigments with linseed oil made from flax seeds and other ingredients. Pigments are dry materials that add color. They were available in different shades, but the shade we see so often on old American barns was called Venetian Red.

According to the 1884 edition of FB Gardner’s “Everybody’s Paint Book”, Venetian red “suited any joint work, or masonry and outbuildings.” This red pigment penetrated well into wooden barn planks and was resistant to fading when exposed to the sun, so it could age gracefully for generations.

Venetian red gets its name from the fact that this pigment was historically produced from natural clays found near Venice, Italy. The clays contained an iron oxide compound which produced this red color.

Red side wall of a barn with white framing around the windows.
Detail of a barn in Grafton, Vermont. John Greim / LightRocket via Getty Images

But as people found similar iron oxide deposits in many other places, “Venetian red” became an umbrella term for light red pigments that did not have a purplish tint. In the 1920s, these “earth pigments” used to make red paints were mined in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Alabama, California, Iowa and Vermont.

In the late 1800s, in addition to red, it became fashionable to paint barns with other color combinations, especially those designed to complement the architectural styles and finishes of owners’ homes. These included various hues of yellows, greens and browns. In addition, white paint was commonly applied to barns and houses.

Four stamp designs show classic styles of American barns.
These stamps, issued January 24, 2021, show a round barn surrounded by hazy light and warm fall colors; a mansard roof barn in summer; an upstream barn in a countryside in early spring; and a western barn on a winter night. USPS, illustration by Kim Johnson, CC BY-ND

But red paint remained popular on many farms because it was the most affordable. In the 1922 Sears Catalog, Roebuck was offering red barn paint for just $ 1.43 a gallon, while other home paint colors were selling for at least $ 2.25 a gallon, or nearly double.

Today, many modern barns do not look like the classic versions. Very large barns that house hundreds of cows or pigs are more like sheds or warehouses and can be constructed of metal. But the tradition of painting small barns red continues – so strongly that the US Postal Service now celebrates them on postage stamps.


Hello, curious children! Have a question you would like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to [email protected] Please tell us your name, age and city where you live.

And since curiosity has no age – adults, also tell us what you are wondering. We will not be able to answer all the questions, but we will do our best.

The conversation

Thomas Durant Visser, professor of historical preservation, University of Vermont

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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