Friday, 8 January 2016

Why are Barn Doors Red?

The explanation seems to be that this colour was cheap. The tradition seems to have been exported to the United States where it developed into more of an iconic image of rural life. To make the colour, richer folk mixed powdered ochre with linseed oil, turpentine and a liquid dessicant. Others simply mixed red ochre pigment with water. The resulting red colour is known as sang de boeuf in French ('ox blood') and some say that a few people mixed real ox blood with linseed oil.

 The stables at the Chateau of Montpoupon.
 Newly painted doors and shutters on a barn and garage in Preuilly.
 Source: Au temps de Chaumussay by Michel Brouard.

28 comments:

  1. Hi Susan. In French — as surely in other languages — special colors have been given names of animals, plants, or things to describe their particular hue. So, sang de bœuf doesn't mean that the actual blood of oxen was ever used to prepare paint; it is just reminiscent or descriptive of that special red tint. At random, vert pomme, taupe, bleu ciel, rouge sang, jaune canari, vert wagon, tête de nègre, gris perle, rouge cardinal ou cerise, noir de jai, coquille d'œuf, coq de roche and so on ....

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    1. Well, the stories that actual blood was used on occasion are fairly persistant.

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  2. What is more if you Google Ox Blood Paint (as I have written it) the top hit is for a recipe for the use of the blood by Kremer Pigmente. Wikipedia, which is not necessarily authoritative, says ox blood is/was used as a pigment for colouring fabric, leather and paint. My fashion consciousness was enhanced belatedly by learning that ox blood was amongst the most commonly used colours in autumn and winter fashion in 2012 & 2013.

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    1. Thanks for the belated fashion tips :-) I can't say I noticed either, but then it isn't a colour I would wear.

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  3. In the U.S. the entire barn, not just the door, is often painted in that dark red color.

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    1. I guess that's because the entire barn is made of wood in the US, whereas here they are stone and only the doors and other openings are wood.

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    2. One web page I read said the red color habit came from Scandinavia. And either that one or another said that red paint made the barn look like it was built of brick instead of wood. Brick was a more prestigious building material.

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    3. The transferance of a Scandinavian tradition to the US is very plausible, especially since they are working in the same building material. I don't believe the 'looks like brick' theory though. Mainly because it would have fooled no one so would have been pointless. Brick wasn't widely available until the 1880s, so it certainly was a prestigious building material. However, unless you genuinely were rich you wouldn't have built your outbuildings out of it, and even then you would probably have limited its use to high status buildings like stables and coach houses. The architectural styles are different too, another reason just painting a wooden barn red wouldn't have fooled anyone.

      Knowing farmers, aesthetics for buildings like barns are of no consequence, but cheapness and practicality is. Some of this changes in the 19th C with wealthy progressive landowners and their ideas of 'model farms' but in terms of widespread practice I reckon the cheap argument wins.

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    4. Colonial America, pre-1776, featured an awful lot of brick buildings.

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    5. Not as many as timber buildings though I'll bet.

      We lived in a brick building built in 1720 in London. The man who built it made his money as an importer and trader in building materials of all sorts. The bricks he used in his own house and outbuildings were recycled, because it would have been very expensive to use new and more importantly because he would have had to wait for a very long time for the brick makers to produce enough bricks. Bricks were always expensive and in very short supply until the process really industrialised in the 19th C and technological advances meant it was possible to produce more bricks and of a higher quality.

      Bricks (and more commonly, tiles) were always made wherever there was suitable clay, but stone, wattle and daub, and wood was cheaper and quicker until relatively recently.

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    6. You've developed a very European viewpoint. I'm not sure what wattle and daub are, so I won't comment on those. Must be mud or such. Stone was not a common or inexpensive building material in early America, I think. Quarries came later. Timber, yes. The forests stretched for hundreds or thousands of miles. And there was also ample red clay for brick-making. Bricks were obviously expensive, and the wealthier "colonies" -- Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia -- were where you saw early brick buildings, it seems to me. That was the point. Anyway, painting barns red obviously became some kind of fad and spread across the country. Wooden houses were painted not red but white. Why?

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    7. Wattle and daub is a mixture of straw and clay smeared over a light lattice of wood. It was commonly used as the infill in half timbered houses in Europe, but in Australia was only used for shacks and low status buildings.

      Speaking from an Australian point of view, the early buildings were stone if they needed to impress, timber or wattle and daub if not. Brick was very rare until the late 19th C. White is a 20th C house colour in Australia. In the 19th century wooden houses were most often a rich yellow ochre, or sometimes some sombre colour, with all the detail picked out in other colours, often dark.

      In the US you get an architectural style known as Greek Revival in the 19th C, and it is these houses that started the white trend there. They are referencing the white marble and limestone of their Greek influences, most obviously in the stucco versions, but also in the timber houses of this period. Prior to that wooden houses were often left unpainted, or sometimes red or yellow ochre according to my reading.

      These days it's easy to get a distorted idea of how much brick was used prior to the mid-19th C because brick survives and timber doesn't. Typically a timber building burns down at some point, so 300 year old timber buildings are rarities anywhere. If they lose their roofs timber buildings have maybe a decade before they are consumed by fungi, whereas a brick building may stand as a ruin for many decades, and its material is still salvageable.

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    8. The town next to the one I come from is Beaufort NC and it has a lot of 18th century houses that are still standing. It's true that they are all build of wood, but then we lived on the coast where the soil is sand, not clay. Inland, there's much more brick. Have you been to the Château du Moulin near Romorantin?

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    9. By the way, what you say about wood houses painted white "referencing" some historical or social ideal is exactly the same point as wood barns painted red resembling more prestigious brick constructions.

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    10. I think it's a matter of degree. The Greek Revival places are openly and consciously referencing/paying homage to the classical world. They are not exactly copying but the intent to make the viewer think about the classical world is there from the beginning.

      I just don't buy the 'barns painted red look like brick' argument. They don't, especially if you are in an area where the brick is yellow or brown or grey. Not everywhere has bright 'brick red' bricks. The main reason I don't buy it though is that these barns are architecturally nothing like the brick buildings in the area in terms of profile/elevation. My opinion is that cheap wins almost always for farm buildings and that the 'paint them red so they look more prestigious' is 19th or 20th C ex post facto argument, a retrospective justification.

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    11. We've not been to the Chateau du Moulin. It looks interesting (although frustratingly there is next to nothing about the building itself and a load of info about the strawberry conservatory on the internet). It seems to me that both this chateau and Beaufort are exceptional. I couldn't work out exactly how many 18th C buildings Beaufort had (certainly less than half of the number of surviving 19th C buildings of similar ilk though, and I notice that at least one of the '18th C' buildings has been redated to a more realistic 19th C date.) Even so, a remarkable number of attractive 18th C buildings have survived in Beaufort, but I don't know how many of their outbuildings have also survived.

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    12. The Beaufort Historical Society's web site says: "As the third oldest town in North Carolina, Beaufort has ... a handful of homes which date back to the 1700s. The Russell House is the oldest, built 1732, and is the current home of the Mattie King Davis Art Gallery. The Leffers Cottage, a rustic white cottage, dates back to 1778 and showcases artifacts of the daily chores during the Colonial period, including cooking, spinning, sewing, candle making, and weaving. The brick red Carteret County Courthouse, built 1796, is the oldest wood-framed courthouse in North Carolina, and the Old Jail, built 1829, is a favorite historical attraction..."

      I've posted pictures of the Château du Moulin but not much information on its history. My posts date from 06 Feb. 2008.

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    13. By the way, the population of Beaufort N.C. in 1800 was 437, according to U.S. census data.

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    14. Thanks for the Historical Society link and details about these lucky survivors.

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    15. In an area that is regularly battered by monstrous hurricanes, the survival of such structures is amazing.

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  4. here in Ontario Canada, iron oxide from mines was mixed with whey because they were cheese makers and creameries everywhere with waste. it made a cheap red paint for doors.

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    1. Other places use iron oxide from rusting metal too. I'd heard of casein paint before, but never heard of using whey in paint. I looked it up and I see it's being touted as the latest environmentally friendly varnish.

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  5. Barns are painted red because of nuclear fusion. Aren't you glad I was able to settle this with a clear, simple answer?

    Well, not I, of course, the Smithsonian. Here's the link to an article which I admit I only skimmed.

    https://plus.google.com/+YonatanZunger/posts/EfmdR6VWvRM

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    1. Now why is it, again, that the sky is blue?

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    2. Fantastic! Thank you very much for this link. Just up my street:-)

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  6. Ken, upthread you spoke of the brick building tradition in the American colonies. I thought of how many old brick buildings from that period there still are in center-city Philadelphia and checked with a masonry expert. He said Phila was founded in 1682, 15 years after the Great Fire of London (1666) so brick was used immediately.

    Ken (again), here in central PA they say the sky is blue because God is a Penn State fan. Since the Joe Paterno debacle, you don't see that bumpersticker so much anymore, I'm glad to say.

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    1. You know what we say in N.C., right? The sky is obviously Carolina blue. (I say that despite being a Dukie.)

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  7. So any college sports team whose color is blue can claim god's a fan? I'm going to check with god about that when he comes home.

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