American as apple pie. American as a hot dog. American as baseball. American as a red barn.
While the red barn is an original American tradition, the paint itself is not. The color thought of as “barn red” started out on the other side of the Atlantic as falu rödfärg (Swedish for “Falun red“) around 500 years old.
For centuries, the Swedish city of Falun flourished from mining the rich veins of copper beneath it. Workers dragged ore to the surface, pulverized, and then extracted the valuable metal, discarding the remaining waste. These haphazard piles soon surrounded the mine. After all, no EPA or OSHA existed to forbid it.
Time and erosion caused these toxic piles to seep a thick, red sludge, which the Falun people collected and boiled (don’t ask me why). This concoction cooked down to a deep, brick-red pigment. To this, they added linseed oil as a pigment binder and rye flour for opacity.
In the 1500s and 1600s, the high cost of pigment meant paint served mostly as a luxury, with builders relying on the natural weather resistance of native wood species. Now the working class could afford a protective, inexpensive, and long-lasting paint.
AND this paint just happened to be the exact same color as European society’s most expensive homes, brick red.
That did it. Falun and the Swedish people went to town with the new falu rödfärg paint. Residential homes, stores, outbuildings, almost any building that could take paint got slapped with this trendy red. Over the centuries, this color became a Swedish tradition and spread to other parts of Northern Europe. Villages full of red buildings still swarm the European countryside.
In the 1600s and 1700s, the paint might not have made it across the Atlantic, but the recipe did. The earliest pioneers didn’t really have the time or desire to weatherproof buildings as the country expanded with homesteading. Pioneers wanted speed and efficiency in homebuilding, so they relied on simple materials like sod and logs that only needed to last years, not decades.
By the mid-to-late 1800s, Midwest farmers once again had time enough to care about painting. Since the United States didn’t have the plentiful copper slag piles of Falun, farmers used what they had on hand as pigment: rust. They collected and crushed rust flakes, added linseed oil, just as the Swedes had done centuries earlier. The traditional red American barn was born.
Sidenote: Red isn’t the only color associated with American barns. Another, cheaper method of weatherproofing emerged and eclipsed the Falun red. This new paint used utilized materials at hand, didn’t require any amount of cooking and wasn’t as dangerously toxic as the copper or iron-based paints: whitewashing.
While Americans did not invent this effective anti-weathering barn paint (also known as “Swedish red“), we DID popularize the barn as a multipurpose outbuilding. Europe’s smaller barns mainly served as storage for grain, livestock, and machinery. Americans have always loathed the inefficient use of resources, so we found a wider range of purposes for these cavernous structures.
Congregations gathered in them as makeshift churches. Barns hosted social functions, like the popular barn dances and weddings. American circuit court judges often conducted trials in barns. Piles of fresh hay and blankets transformed them into guest accommodations. Our barns served as our country’s first carriage houses and, later on, as our first automobile garages. The massive, highly-visible barn roofs near American highways also served as the country’s first billboards.
No building better symbolizes the American Midwest better than the red barn. The United States might not have invented the functional paint or the barn itself…but we found a way to make it better.
Want to Know More?
If you REALLY want to understand the chemistry and history of red pigments, read Rose Eveleth’s article “Barns Are Painted Red Because of the Physics of Dying Stars” from Smithsonian Magazine. She gets all atomic on barn paint.
Check out this fascinating article “The Evolution of the American Barn” by the editors of The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
Discover the troubling history of another adopted American décor, haint blue, a pleasing, pale blue very common in the southern United States, the article “Haint Blue: the Light Blue with a Dark History.“