Answer Man

How barns got to be red

Richard and Alice Green have a red barn on their farm. The photo was taken before an Okawville house tour a few years ago.
Richard and Alice Green have a red barn on their farm. The photo was taken before an Okawville house tour a few years ago. mhouston@bnd.com

Q: Something I’ve always wondered about during drives in the country: Why are so many barns painted red?

C.L., of Marissa

A: Centuries ago, farmers obviously could not run down to their neighborhood Hardware R Us stores to pick up the latest long-lasting paints and wood preservatives. So until the late 1700s, barns not only weren’t painted red, they largely weren’t painted at all, according to Catherine Lazers Bauer, who died last year at age 91 after a long career as a freelance writer.

In a lengthy 2007 article about barn history in Grit, Bauer found that barns started out relatively small in Europe, only to become supersized in the U.S. as perhaps a sign of a settler’s confidence that the New World would allow him to fulfill hopes he could only dream about before.

“It is pretty to behold our back settlements where barns are as large as palaces, while owners live in log huts, a sign of thrifty farming,” Lewis Evans wrote in 1753.

Still, other than size, early American barns had not changed much from their European predecessors, according to “American Barns and Covered Bridges” by Eric Sloane. At that time, weather was an overriding consideration in constructing a barn. Farmers would take careful note of sun patterns as well as wind and water drainage. They also made sure they kept their animals as healthy and comfortable as possible as well as protected and preserved the barn timber and any stored grain as well.

But paint was not part of this picture, Bauer writes. By aging the wood and using the right wood in the right place, farmers found no paint was needed. Even houses in early settlements were rarely painted. To many of those frugal folk, painting the barn would have been seen as extravagant and showy.

That began to change by the late 1700s as wood seasoning gave way to artificial preservation. The Pennsylvania Dutch became noted for their fondness for red bricks, red barns, red geraniums — even their reddish-brown cows. They also began putting colorful “hex” signs on their barns to keep evil spirits away. It was no great leap when farmers in nearby Virginia started to become paint-conscious. At first, old-timers sneered at the idea, accusing their neighbors of copying “those superstitious Germans of Pennsylvania.” But color soon caught on for both its preservative ability and aesthetic appeal.

Coming up with a homemade formula, however, was a matter of trial and error. One early attempt found farmers mixing skim milk, lime and iron oxide — the stuff that gives natural red clay its coppery color. The combination produced a plasticlike coating that hardened quickly and lasted for years. Unfortunately, farmers found it sometimes hardened too well and peeled off in sheets. To get around this disaster, farmers eventually found that linseed oil derived from flax plants could seal bare wood and produce a coral hue. For inside surfaces, some farmers reportedly followed an American Indian custom of mixing blood from slaughtered animals with milk. A pigment called “Indian Red” was fashioned from clay mixed with the whites of wild turkey eggs and turkey blood, according to Bauer.

Not only did these dark red concoctions preserve the wood, farmers also noticed that the darker surfaces helped keep their barns warmer in winter by absorbing the sun’s rays better than the lighter-colored natural wood. Rather than simply fashion or superstition, the red color initially was used for function and utility before becoming the tradition it is today. And don’t let anyone tell you the red color helped cows find their way home. Bovines are red-green colorblind, meaning to them reds are just one of those 50 shades of gray.

Q: Why are cabins on cruise ships often called “state rooms”?

P.A., of Dupo

A: If you were rich enough to build a palace, wouldn’t you want to live in the finest rooms so you could lord (and lady) it over on your friends and family? As odd as it sounds, it apparently didn’t work like that in Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Instead, in grand abodes like Blenheim Palace in England, the most lavishly decorated rooms with the finest works of art were always kept ready for a visiting head of state, because you just never knew when you would have to impress King Louis or Queen Mary when he or she popped in for a visit. The owners usually “settled” for the second-best suite of rooms in the house, although they likely weren’t too shabby, either.

As a result, the most sumptuous chambers became known as “state” rooms, a shortened version of “head of state.” Admittance to the state apartments was a privilege, so the further you were allowed to penetrate in this inner sanctum, the higher your rank on the pecking order. To make you feel like a king (or queen), the top-of-the-line, first-class cabins on cruise ships became known as state rooms to follow the European tradition. In a more American custom, fancy passenger rooms on riverboats often were given the names of actual states, such as the Alabama Room or Illinois Suite.

Today’s trivia

Thanks to a 1907 advertising campaign, what would a woman be given if she winked at her grocer?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: Thirty years ago, everything comedian Bill Cosby touched seemed to turn to gold. With “The Cosby Show” atop the ratings, Cosby decided it was time to give his TV daughter Lisa Bonet her own show, so he created “A Different World” that featured Denise Huxtable attending a fictional black college in Virginia. Today, the series’ first show is still the highest-rated pilot in history, pulling in nearly 39 million viewers for a 31.3 rating for NBC. And even when Cosby ordered a pregnant Bonet off the show as a regular in the second season, the series continued for four more years. Rounding out the top 10 pilots in viewership are “Undercover Boss” (Feb. 7, 2010); “The Last Precinct” (Jan. 26, 1986, although the show was axed after seven more episodes); “Dolly (Sept. 27, 1987); “Veronica’s Closet” (Sept. 25, 1997); “Twin Peaks” (April 8, 1990); “Brothers and Sisters” (Jan. 21, 1979); “Full House” (Sept. 22, 1987); “Roseanne” (Oct. 18, 1988); and “Grand Slam” (Jan. 28, 1990).

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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