Grit: Rural American Know How Click the link to read the article in its entirety.
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. To paint the barn would have been viewed not only as extravagant, but vulgar and showy.
However, 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. When a Pennsylvania Dutch farmer added big ornamental designs to barns, “just for luck,” he was accused of designing a hex sign to frighten the devil. Many old-timers sneered at their neighbors’ newly painted barns and accused them of copying “those superstitious Germans of Pennsylvania.”
But color caught on. Inasmuch as ready-made paint was not available, a farmer mixed his own. He discovered that skimmed milk, lime and red iron oxide made a plastic-like coating that hardened quickly and lasted for years. Occasionally, it hardened too well and peeled off in sheets. Linseed oil was subsequently added to the recipe to provide the necessary soaking quality. Thus American “barn red” was born. It came into being through function and utility, rather than decor or superstition. It was soon discovered that the red barn color was warmer in winter since it absorbed the sun’s rays.
In the mid-19th century, skimmed milk was used in mixing paint. The belief that barn red originated with American Indians actually has some foundation. Records indicate that, in accordance with an old American Indian custom, farm stock blood was indeed mixed with milk and used for staining interior surfaces. A pigment called “Indian Red” was made from clay mixed with whites of wild turkey eggs. Turkey blood was added to provide a deep mahogany shade. Stains using blood were not, however, suitable for outdoor use.
Red has remained the traditional color for most American barns, particularly in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States. We can thank our ingenious colonial forebears for this visually appealing, colorful heritage.