Why are Barns Red? by Pam Crooks


Who hasn’t seen a red barn before? They’re traditional, they stand out, and the color is practical.

But there’s history as to how the red evolved on barns. Back in the 1700s, in the northeast part of the country, farmers covered them with thick vertical boards, allowing them to weather gray over time.

Later, in the mid-1800s, farmers went horizontal with the boards to close up drafts and improve warmth and efficiency for their animals. These horizontal boards, clapboards as we know them, were sawed thin. Because of their thinness, they needed paint for protection to lengthen their longevity, in addition to improving their appearance.

During that time, people mixed their own paint with a pigment combination of linseed oil, flax seeds, and other ingredients. Pigment, of course, adds color, and the favorite of the time was called “Venetian Red,” so called because the pigment was made from natural clays found near Venice, Italy, and contained an iron oxide compound that made the red color.

This red pigment penetrated well into barn boards, resisted fading in the sun, and aged well for generations. Although later in the 1800s, farmers turned to other colors of paint like yellows, greens, browns, and of course white, red remained popular, mainly because it was so affordable.

In my copy of the 1927 Sears Roebuck catalogue, a 5 gallon can of red barn paint was $1.30/gallon.

They offered 35 other colors of paint in 5 gallon cans for $2.20/gallon.

You can see the savings, and who could blame a farmer? He’d save almost twice as much going with the traditional barn red.

Fast forward to today, barns have gotten quite large. Large enough to hold hundreds of cows, chickens, or pigs, in fact. That large, they can come pre-fabricated, built out of metal and resemble warehouses or even an airplane hangar, and thank goodness, no one would have to paint one of those, right?

Still, the traditional red barn endures for smaller structures and remain so beloved the US Postal Service celebrated them on postage stamps.

Driving down the interstate or highway, you might see a big American flag on a barn’s roof. Or a political candidate’s name.  These quilt barns are especially popular!

What is the most unusually painted barn you’ve seen?

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Pam has written 30 romances, most of them historical westerns, but her newest releases are contemporary sweet romances featuring the Blackstone Ranch series published by Tule Publishing. Stay up on the latest at www.pamcrooks.com

40 thoughts on “Why are Barns Red? by Pam Crooks”

  1. Good morning Pam. I live here in Kansas and in the county north of where I live there is a barn that’s been painted to celebrate Kansas’s 150 year celebration as a State. It was painted over a decade ago and was so beautiful. As time has passed and our crazy weather, wind, & snows in KS, it’s fading away. The state even put up a sign on the nearby state highway 160, when it was 1st painted, which still remains that says Kansas 150 Celebration Barn with an arrow pointing to the county road off the state highway 160.
    Thank you for such an amazing topic. I travel a lot in my job, so now I’ll be in the lookout for some pretty barns and take some photos to share with you.
    Have a great week.

    • Howdy, Tonya! What a great tribute for Kansas and their celebration. Using a barn is way better than a billboard – it’s bigger, doesn’t get booted because of another advertiser, and lasts for years. I love that the state even gave directions! Kudos to the farmer who offered his barn to promote his state. He was probably a hero to all his neighbors.

      Glad you’re feeling better!

    • Good morning, Debra. I don’t quite understand why barns are left to weather gray. It’s inevitable that the wood would deteriorate, and the structure would suffer.

      Psychedelic would be really cool – and ver-ry untraditional. I wonder what the neighbors thought. LOL.

  2. Good morning Pam! I love barns. In fact, I have two paintings in my house of barns. One depicts a fall scene and the other a winter scene. Thank you for sharing the pictures. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a barn painted an unusual color. Even the weathered, dilapidated ones on deserted homesteads are beautiful to me. They speak history.

    I’m excited to get your book. Thanks for being such a wonderful writer and friend.

    • Good morning, Kathy! I wish I had a barn picture in my house. Cowboys, yes – but no barns. LOL.

      Back when I lived in western Nebraska, I would see leaning barns that have been deserted, and I, too, wondered about their glory years. They would have served such a valuable purpose.

      The old ones that are missing boards likely served a new purpose for artists who love creating their work on barn wood. Very rustic and popular.

      I noticed that A COWBOY AND A PROMISE is not yet free as I write this – but hang tight. It’s coming!

  3. Hi Pam!
    I live in central California near Highway 41 that leads to Yosemite National park. There is a big barn along 41 that the owner painted like a flag after 9/11. He has continued to keep it up and it is a landmark and source of patriot pride for all who drive past every day.

    • Oh, I love this, Kelly. That flag would be seen for miles. The fact that the owner takes the time and money to keep it up truly shows his devotion to his country. What a powerful message for everyone to see. Thanks for sharing.

  4. good morning. thanks for posting this interesting fact about red barns. when I lived on a farm in CA, we would help our neighbors paint barns, etc. one neighbor said to bring what ever left over paint you can. so everyone used the paint they brought and took one board at a time. it turned out rather pretty with a bunch of different colors going from top to bottom all around.

    • Oh, that’s funny, Lori!! I’d love to see a picture of the end result, and what a great way to be economical by using up leftover paint!

      I’m trying to picture in my mind what that barn would look like. A real conversation piece, for sure!

    • Oh, that’s interesting, Kathleen. A dark green barn would be a welcome sight in winter when most everything turns brown. At least for most of the country.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Pam, this is so interesting. I never knew why red was the color of choice for most farmers. I always love when I learn something. I think those aerial barnstormers used to advertise on barns a lot. I’ve seen quite a few with American flags painted on them. An excellent post.

    • Living in Texas, Linda, you would have seen a bunch of barns, and I agree. Flags are very popular. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the farmers were vets or came from military families.

      I, for one, think flags are an excellent choice!

    • A round barn? Wow. I don’t recall seeing those here in Nebraska. We have silos and quonsets, though. Many farmers use quonsets (which are usually metal) to use as their mechanic shops or storage for equipment. Some for grain, I suppose.

      I think a round barn would be really hard to build, but very cool to see.

      Thanks for sharing, Teresa!

  6. I love looking at barns while driving from Florida to Georgia! All of the ones I remember seeing are red, though some are so weathered, you can’t really tell the color anymore.

    • I hear you, Trudy. I love driving on highways and seeing farms – the houses, fields, animals. Some of the houses are quite nice – sprawling brick and big lawns. Others are smaller and older and probably raised a family in their day.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  7. The Amish always have white barns and homes, and the boards on their barns can be opened to allow ventilation when drying tobacco–they are some on the last holdouts from the government tobacco buyout in the 90s. Some have converted to other crops or flowers.

    Around here, there’s been a trend to paint a showcase barn red and put the county ag logo on the side of the barn, but most of the barns are white or natural/stained.

    There is an unusual brick barn with a few patterns made with colored brick near some outlets in Lancaster County.

    It’s not unusual to see a barn partially fieldstone in this area, especially when it’s built into the side of a hill.

    Horse barns are almost always white or natural around here, same for cattle (dairy and beef) barns, and for chicken houses.

    Mushroom houses are white cinderblock structures.

    The barn on my parents property was from the early 1800s, unpainted. It collapsed a few years ago. It hadn’t been used as a barn since the 80s. My grandpa had built a rough addition structure onto the mid-1800s house (uninhabited) to hang his tobacco (Southern tobacco is a different variety than Amish tobacco) in Tennessee. They used part of that house as a barn.

    The original barns built in the Eastern US used old wood–trees that were hundreds of years old or older. Whether a hardwood or softwood, it would have been denser and stronger than wood used on today’s barns. Today, there are also metal structures which can be any color.

    That’s been my visual experience with barns in this region.

      • I do love seeing a red barn, they’re just less common in this area. I even have a pretty Jim Shores barn and it’s red.

        The about the round barns someone else mentioned, a few were in former Shaker communities and can be visited as preserved history museums.

  8. I love the traditional red barns, I have not seen barns that are painted a different color so far. Thank you for sharing this information with us , it is very interesting and good to know. Have a great rest of the week and stay safe.

  9. We have quite a few “quilt barns” in our area. At one point, the visitor center had a Quilt Trail pamphlet so you could drive around and see them all. There is a barn in our area that has been painted in vertical stripes of all different colors. Not an art display or any other decoration. It is almost as if they bought any left over or sale gallons of paint they could and used them to paint one strip then moved on to the next color. There are barns not far from here that are painted as billboards advertising either a tourist site (Ruby Falls) or a local product. We have passed some in our travels that have had lovely murals painted on the side. Barns do offer large canvases if you choose to use them as such.
    Thank you for an interesting post.

    • Patricia, I would absolutely love to go on a Quilt Trail to see the barns!! What a fun day trip that would be. Dang, I don’t think we have that many here in Nebraska or Iowa to warrant a trail, but it sure would be something I’d love to do.

      Glad you enjoyed the barn info!!

  10. So interesting, Pam! Loved this! Most of the barns I remember seeing were all weathered and you could not tell what color they might have been, but we do have some red ones I recall. My mom had a saying that I’ve always remembered, though. When she’d put on lipstick, she’d smush her lips together and blot it off and say, “Well, every old barn needs a little red paint once in a while!” LOL I do not go out of this house without my make up and lipstick on. I can hear her voice in my head. LOL

    • Hahahaha!! I laughed out loud at your mother’s saying, Cheryl! What a hoot! My mother loved her red lipstick, too, and I vividly remember her blotting her lips on a square of toilet paper every time.

      She was beautiful wearing red lipstick, and it was hugely popular back in the day. Wish I had the courage – I’m more of a rosey-pink kind of girl.

      Thanks for such a fun story, Cheryl!

  11. Thank you so much for sharing. I see a lot of red barns around. There is one in the area that is showing it’s age. One one side of the barn has an ad for chewing tabaco.

    • Chewing tobacco is a bit of an odd advertisement unless one is in tobacco country, I suppose. I’ve never seen one here in the Midwest. I wonder if the company paid the farmer for the use of his barn???

  12. What a fascinating tidbit about red barns, Pam. I never really thought about it, but your explanation makes perfect sense. And I love your mention of the Sears & Roebuck catalog. I remember them well! Congrats on the BookBub deal!

    • Thanks, Jan. So sweet of you to stop by. The Sears & Roebuck catalog I mention is one of my very favorite research books of all time. The 1927 edition is a reprint, of course, but it is a real jewel.

      And oh, yes, you and I are about the same age, so we remember those big ol’ catalogs arriving in the mail. Oh, how we loved those!!

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