Here in Vermont, barns are a common sight. There are thousands of barns of all shapes, sizes, and colors, dotting the rolling hills from the Southernmost tip of the state to the Canadian border. Travel in any direction and you’re bound to spot at least one. Many of the barns here were built in the 1700s and are still being used today by our hard working farmers, with more barns being built every day!
When you think of a barn, do you picture a large outbuilding on a farm with floor-to-ceiling sliding doors and a hayloft? Are there horses, cows, sheep, or other livestock living in the barn? Maybe it houses farm equipment or antique automobiles draped in tarps? Is there a tall cupola with a wrought iron weathervane dutifully indicating the direction of the wind? What color is the barn you’re picturing? Is it red? If it is, why do you think the barn you’re picturing is that color? Maybe you are imagining a real barn that you’ve seen or visited—or even own yourself. But barns come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, so why is it that when we see or think of the “classic” depiction of a barn, most often it’s red? Well the answer might surprise you.
You may have heard that farmers painted their barns red to help better guide their livestock home. That’s not the case, however, as cows are colorblind and can’t see the color red. So don’t worry, your red shirt or dress won’t anger any bulls (but if you are around bulls or other large livestock, remember to stay alert, don’t stand behind them, and respect their space). Another unfounded belief is that some settlers thought that buildings made of brick were a sign of wealth and so those who could not afford real bricks would find ways to evoke the same colors on their wooden buildings. But that’s not the case either, as few barns were made of brick, especially back in the colonial days. In fact, the first barns ever built were unpainted and their bare wood quickly aged and turned dark gray over time.
Historically, barns were painted red, not for aesthetic reasons, but out of practical necessity, which is consistent with the frugality of Vermonters. Farmers wanted to ensure that the wood that they used to construct their barns from would last for generations without rotting or succumbing to the elements. This meant using paint or oil to seal their barns.
As early as colonial times, farmers used linseed oil as a sealant, which is orange in color and derived from flax seeds. Linseed oil was often mixed with other additives to help improve its preservative properties, such as milk (which would have been plentiful on many farms) and lime. Ferrous oxide, which we know commonly as rust, turned the linseed oil a deep orange-red color. It also helped discourage the growth of moss and fungi.
A well-sealed barn lasted much longer, needed fewer repairs over time and kept farmers and livestock warmer in the winter. The red color also took longer than other colors to fade in the sun, which meant less time and money was spent touching up drab and peeling barns.
In the 1800s manufacturers began to produce and sell paint. Conveniently, red paint was the cheapest and most widely available color, making it a natural transition from linseed oil. What started out of necessity became a tradition that continues to this day, although nowadays red is most often a stylistic choice. Here in Vermont, we think red barns are quite handsome! What color is your favorite?
Learn more about life in Vermont by checking out our other blog articles here.