Monday, June 8, 2020

Why Barns are Red

Have you ever wondered why barns are traditionally red? I love old barns. No matter where we roam I look for barns and it makes me sad to see these beautiful buildings, so full of history, and usefulness, falling into disrepair. All across the USA, you'll find barns in a wide array of colors, shapes, and sizes, but the majority of them are red. Yes, red barns are a tradition but there is a simple explanation for this trend.

You will notice that in this image, the old copper mill in Kennecott, Alaska the building is red, just like a barn. Actually, almost all of the rooms built at this historical site were painted red. When the owner of the mill was asked why he painted everything red, his answer was simple. It was the cheapest paint. In the 1800's through the turn of the century, red paint was cheap, but that is not where the tradition of red barns began.

Originally, barns, outbuildings, and houses were not painted. A variety of natural pigments may have been used in plaster, stucco, or adobe to give some color to the places, but for the most part preservation of the structure was the main aim of any such endeavor. For most of history, natural substances were used to condition wood and prevent rot and insects from decimating a home. Over time, a variety of paints and finishes became available but they could be expensive and difficult to procure. One of the most readily available and inexpensive products was linseed oil. Linseed, or flaxseed oil comes from the flax plant. Flax was commonly grown as a food, and fodder crop and the fibers were often used for making fabric or clothing. Since the oil was a byproduct of processing the plant it was widely available and was soon in use on barns and outbuildings, preserving them from infestations and the ravages of weather.

Once the wood is sealed with linseed oil, it begins to darken, soaking in the oil and sealing it tight, but over time the oil will oxidize, turning a deep, rich shade of red. The fact that barns are traditionally red, comes simply from this effect of using linseed oil to weatherproof the precious wood. Yes, barns are red because flaxseed oil was the easiest way to protect them from the elements.  I actually shared this fact with our guide in Alaska last year, when another guest at Kennecott mine, asked about the red buildings. What can I say, as an historical romance author, you have a lot of odd things in your brain?

In my most recent book, Hester's Hope, the old barn in the abandoned home Hester moves into, is too faded to be sure what color it might have been. Still, the intrepid young woman and her unruly wards soon find that life in Wyoming is an adventure. I hope you'll take the time to check out Hester's Hope and Tales from Biders Clump.

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