As you take a leisurely stroll through the country, you spot a familiar sight: a big, red farmer’s barn. Then you see another and another – all decked out in the same bright hue. But if you’ve ever wondered why the barns are all identically colored, there’s actually a simple and perhaps obvious reason. And the science behind it will blow your mind.
In fact, farmyard barns all look pretty similar regardless of where they are in the U.S. Yes, while their functions may differ – they may be used for keeping crops or fertilizer safe, for example, or as a garage for machinery – these imposing structures are all basically built along the same lines.
And that lack of diversity extends, of course, to barns’ colors. In almost every case, they’re a red hue – regardless of the size of the building. That shade is usually exactly the same from barn to barn, too. Typically, these huge warehouses are painted in a specific tone called red ochre.
Red ochre is also known by its chemical formula Fe2O3, which – as you may recognize from your school days – makes it a combination of iron and oxygen. And this particular mixture soaks up blue, green and yellow light, meaning, at a glance, it appears to be a particular shade of red.
However, to understand why pretty much all barns are painted the same color, we have to take a step back in time. It all stems from the first farmers to settle in New England several centuries ago – although, to begin with, the outsides of their barns were largely left completely bare.
As the farmers worked for very little profit, you see, investing in paint was seen as an unnecessary expense. But towards the end of the 18th century, laborers began to experiment with ways in which they could give their barns extra layers of protection using whatever they could find at the time.
And farming was certainly part of the fabric of the north-eastern United States in the 1700s. This meant that barns ultimately became ubiquitous in the region, popping up all over the countryside. Among the oldest examples is the log crib barn, made out of wood and featuring an open-plan interior as well as a roof with two sloping sides.
The design of the barn actually came to America with its earliest European settlers. And in 1869 noted Protestant preacher Henry Ward Beecher deemed such structures to be “the real headquarters of the farm.” But for some, these buildings were more than just functional storage spaces.
Often, barns served as social venues, too. They were gathering spots where the farm’s workers could congregate at the end of the day to thrash out a plan of action for the following morning. They also held secret nooks where kids could play. And, of course, barns even hosted traditional dances.
If barns were unpainted, though, their wood was left susceptible to the elements. Farmers may have realized, then, that it was actually more cost-effective to protect their buildings than to spend valuable time and money fixing weathered timber or – in the most extreme cases – renovating dilapidated barns almost from scratch.
However, as paint was itself expensive, folks would experiment with their own cocktails – typically made of basic items available around the farm – instead of traditional varnishes, stains or dyes. And even with the sheer variety of ingredients at hand, red ochre emerged as one of the most ubiquitous concoctions.
A mixture of lime, milk and iron oxide was particularly commonplace, as it was not only low-cost, but also relatively simple to create. And, best of all, it proved to be a durable solution that managed to protect barns from the elements for years.
Yet there are a few theories as to why this red hue was so prevalent. Some stem from tradition and history; others suggest a more practical reason for the distinctive shade. But as it happens, none of these hypotheses have any bearing on the reasons for the uniform barn color.
Yes, some people think that red barns were painted in that shade because American farmers were mimicking a practice from Scandinavia. There, farm buildings were given coats of red ochre to give the impression from a distance that they were made of brick. And as brick is a more expensive material than wood, this created the illusion that the owner of the land was rich.
Another theory is that the red color serves as a beacon for farm animals. It’s been said, for instance, that cattle hone in on the distinctive hue, helping them to find their way back to a farm if they somehow get lost. But this idea has been debunked for good reason.
That’s because cows are actually color blind and see in varying shades of gray and black rather than in green and red – although they can pick out shades of blue and yellow. As such, painting a barn red wouldn’t necessarily help guide the animals home unless they somehow recognize the building itself.
And, in fact, the truth is much simpler: most barns are red because of a matter of economy. Originally, you see, the mixtures that the farmers concocted to paint their barns largely contained ingredients that were accessible in or around the land they owned.
For instance, there was linseed oil, which was not only easily attainable from flax plants, but also cheap and effective at protecting barns from decay. But linseed oil also tended to stain the timber a deep coral – not the distinctive red ochre hue for which farm buildings are so famous.
Instead, it was iron oxide – an element often abundant in soil – that gave the farmers’ paint mixtures that unmistakable scarlet color. And those who applied the home-made wash discovered that it had other benefits beyond just its ability to protect wood.
In particular, the red paint also helped insulate barns during the winter, as the color is more effective than bare wood when it comes to absorbing the sun’s rays. And that made the concoction not just a natural defense against the elements, but also a way to create extra warmth when it was most needed.
Still, even today, there are red barns across the U.S. And this is despite the fact that great strides have been made in both wood protection and insulation – meaning, in theory, farmers should be able to decorate their buildings using any colors they want. There must be an explanation, then, as to why this long-held practice has endured.
And, indeed, there is a reason why barns are usually red – although it’s not to do with farmers still mixing their own DIY tints. It’s not exactly rooted in tradition, either, even if one thing ties modern barn paint to the cocktails that were used throughout history. It’s all to do with that distinctive red hue.
Simply put, red remains the barn color of choice just because it remains cheap to buy. But this coincidence is not down to a permanent sale running in the farmers’ local Home Depots or Lowe’s. Instead, it’s down to something far more cosmic.
Yes, regardless of how old or new a barn is, it’s likely to always be red – as that shade of paint will always be the most affordable kind on the market. Why is that still the case? Well, while red paint’s manufacture may be a little more industrialized than it was back in the 1700s, its ingredients haven’t actually changed that much at all.
In addition, one particular element of red paint is so widely available that it helps keep production costs down. And to understand the reason for its abundance, you have to take a look toward the stars – or, more specifically, dying ones.
Now, as you may recall, red ochre – the shade typically used on barns – has the chemical formula Fe2O3. For those who are less scientifically inclined, “Fe” represents iron on the periodic table and “O” stands for oxygen, while the numbers in the formula indicate how many iron and oxygen atoms make up the compound.
What’s more, iron is the cheapest metal on Earth – simply because there is so much of it. And the reason why the metal is so abundant may just surprise you. Yes, incredibly, it’s all because of stars that are about to collapse.
There’s a nuclear reaction that occurs when a star is dying, and ultimately this produces iron – the same element found in the early farmers’ soil and added to paint to this day. A Google employee named Yonatan Zunger explained this mind-blowing chain of events on the Google+ platform in 2013.
Zunger described, “The only thing holding [a] star up [is] the energy of [its] fusion reactions. So, as power levels go down, the star starts to shrink.” But as Isaac Newton’s third law states, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. And as power levels decrease and the star gets smaller, something else has to occur, too.
“As [the star] shrinks, the pressure goes up,” Zunger explained. “And the temperature [also] goes up until suddenly it hits a temperature where a new reaction can get started.” Then, as the temperature increases, the energy in the star follows suit. But what happens when it all becomes too much?
Well, Zunger added, “These new reactions give [the star] a big burst of energy, but [they] start to form heavier elements still.” So, even though the star is shrinking, it continues to produce new elements. And, interestingly, the elements the collapsing star produces neatly correspond to the order of the periodic table.
“The cycle gradually repeats, with the star reacting further and further up the periodic table [and] producing more and more heavy elements as it goes,” Zunger continued to describe. However, the cycle isn’t infinite, meaning the celestial body will eventually reach its limit – and this in turn explains the abundance of iron.
Firstly, though, the dying star will produce an element with just one proton and neutron inside its nucleus, then one with two protons and neutrons. And in this way, it will keep going as it works its way up the periodic table until it finally creates an element with 56 protons and neutrons.
“At that point, the reactions simply stop producing energy at all; the star shuts down and collapses without stopping,” Zunger elaborated. After that, the star hangs in that region for a while until it simply dies. But that’s not entirely the end of the story.
Zunger added, “This collapse raises the pressure even more and sets off various nuclear reactions which will produce even heavier elements. But they don’t produce any energy – just stuff.” This “stuff” continues to have an atomic mass of 56 or thereabouts, but yet again the process has an eventual limit.
Once the collapsing star has churned out everything it can, it’ll finally die in an enormous nuclear explosion. Indeed, as YouTube channel SpaceRip described in June 2009, “When a massive star reaches the end of its life, it explodes dramatically. And for a few months, it can outshine everything else in the galaxy.”
In this way, a star that has existed for billions of years can disappear in under a second. Firstly, its core – which starts out with Earth-like dimensions – dwindles to approximately 12 miles in diameter before exploding. And all of the matter the star has produced gets thrown out into the galaxy thanks to the sheer force of that blast.
So, as the star has produced a lot of matter with the atomic mass 56, this is predominantly what gets scattered far and wide. But at this point, you may be asking yourself a question: what exactly does all this have to do with red paint?
Well, you see, there’s a metallic compound that contains 56 neutrons and protons. This is iron – which, as you’ll remember, is the very element that gives red paint its color. And that’s exactly why we can link the color of barns to the science of a dying star.
The death of a star is called a supernova, and it may happen just once in a 50-year period in a galaxy. The resultant stardust dissipates through space and in due course will form new stars and planets. But some of this iron debris may reach Earth as meteorites, contributing to the sheer abundance of the element on our planet. And that, in a nutshell, is the reason why barns are painted red across the States.
However, if you live in the southern U.S. – or if you’ve ever been on a trip there – you’ll probably have spotted another ubiquitous feature. All around, it seems, and from street to street, you’ll see the same color emblazoned on houses. But why do all these homeowners appear to share an identical taste in paint?
Take a tour of the American South, and you’ll no doubt notice a common feature among the traditional houses pushed back from the sidewalks. Interestingly, the vast majority of homeowners have painted their porch ceilings and window shutters a particular shade of blue. And if you were to enquire about the name of this color, you’d probably be told that it’s “haint blue.” Yet the history behind the use of this popular shade is likely more sobering – and horrifying – than you’d have initially imagined.
Naturally, many people won’t have given much thought to the color of their porch ceilings or shutters. In fact, it’s possible – and even likely in some cases – that people choose haint blue in order to continue family traditions. And this is a factor that strategic design intelligence director Ellen O’Neill from paint producer Benjamin Moore touched upon when she spoke to Today in 2017.
O’Neill said, “No one would think twice about painting their porch blue, because their grandmother’s and their parents’ [porches] were blue. It’s permeated into porch design.” Color design expert Lori Sawaya also confirmed this to paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams. She said, “Porch ceilings have always been blue in the South.”
Yet the porch-painting tradition had to have started somewhere. And it seems that the origins of painting blue shutters and porches could be rooted in either everyday concerns – or a more shameful shared history. Putting forward a case for the former, then, Sherwin-Williams states that the practice could have started with the Victorians.
The theory goes that the Victorians – or those who lived in the mid- to late-19th century – liked decorating their properties with paints reminiscent of the natural world. So, for instance, your typical Victorian might have applied earthy colors, such as ochre or terracotta, to their home. This would apparently have brought to mind a sense of being outside.
So, the Victorians seemingly chose blue for their porch ceilings for the exact same reason; it would remind them of bright, clear skies – even when the actual weather was miserable. This theory is, then, a long way removed from the shameful history that many believe the color is concealing. Yet while O’Neill didn’t namecheck the Victorians specifically, the designer does appear to agree with the general concept that blue equals sky.
O’Neill told Today, “A blue sky is an optimistic thing to look at. It reminds us of daybreak; it wards off gloomy weather and delays nightfall. Painting a ceiling blue brings in nature and the sky.” So the argument for this – and not any darker reason – being behind the South’s abundant haint blue shutters is compelling. And it seems that reminding people of long, summer days is not the only rational reason that one might desire a blue porch ceiling.
According to Colour Affects – and a number of other sources – blue tones usually have a relaxing impact on people. And if this is true, it follows that it would be the ideal color with which to decorate a porch. After all, it wouldn’t do to be feeling stressed out or enraged while sitting out on the stoop trying to enjoy a bit of quiet time.
The color can also work to make the porch a calming extension of the natural surroundings. That’s because, as we mentioned, we associate blue with a clear sky. Lori Sawaya told Sherwin-Williams, “Light blues especially lighten and brighten space and propagate any light that you do get, because of the basic nature of color.” So the shade seemingly promotes a relaxing sense of being outside. For many, that would be enough. Yet for others, the use of haint blue is more closely tied to a shameful history.
Is that the whole story, though? After all, there could also be another practical reason for folks choosing a blue porch ceiling – even if it may be more of a myth. You see, this theory goes that blue paint will help keep insects at bay during the warmer months. O’Neill said to Today, “If an insect perceives that a ceiling is really the sky, it instinctively wouldn’t nest there.”
O’Neill continued, “It depends how deep you want to go into the brain of an insect… but it’s not unlike how ladybugs will land on a white house. It’s a visual trick.” Other homeowners seemingly believe there’s truth in this theory, too, and that’s why they’ve painted their porch ceilings blue. But it’s possible that it’s not 100 percent accurate – at least, not anymore. It’s also possible that users are turning a blind eye to history.
Historically speaking, you see, the blue paints used on ceilings were normally “milk paints,” and they often had lye stirred into the mix for good measure. So, it was the lye that typically served to keep bugs away. And as milk paints would often deteriorate with the passage of time, the addition of extra layers of paint every now and then boosted the amount of lye on the ceilings and shutters.
Of course, paint is rarely made with lye these days. Sherwin-Williams’ paints are, for instance, usually mixed with water or oil. In fact, lye is now more likely to be seen in chemical paint remover rather than ready-mixed paint. So, it seems that blue paint’s ability to keep porches bug-free could be something of a legend. Yet people obviously started painting their porches and shutters blue for a reason.
But was it for one of the reasons presented above – or a more sobering explanation? Myths and legends may yet play a role in the use of the color, too. Certainly, the American South has a rich history – and many of its traditions were born years and years ago. Or perhaps it’s simply because the color is so adaptable? Blue could fit every kind of household, after all.
In fact, O’Neill told Today that blue will work “regardless of the rest of the paint colors” on a house. The designer explained, “It looks like, ‘Oh, of course, that’s the sky.’” Yet while interior designer Zoe Kyriacos agreed on principle, she argued to Sherwin-Williams that there’s a little more to it than that.
Kyriacos said, “You don’t want [a blue ceiling] to look like an afterthought or like it came out of nowhere. You want to make it look like it was part of the package.” And – putting aside all possible historical resonance of haint blue – the color expert had further advice on selecting just the right color for your house.
So if you’re willing to put aside any misgivings about the horrible history of haint blue and are just looking to decorate an older-style home, Kyriacos recommends considering a pale blue. But if your house is more modern, you could be better off selecting a blue with extra attitude. And to mix things up a little, the designer reckons that blues with suggestions of different tints could work well too.
The shade that we’re most interested in, though, is haint blue. This is the subtle, almost turquoise blue that is seemingly favored by southerners – particularly in South Carolina. And the name of this particular shade should offer up a clue to its supposed mythical origin. This in turn will also highlight the more shameful aspects of the color’s history.
You see, the word haint actually refers to a spirit or ghost in southern folklore. But – as you could probably guess – these are not friendly spirits. According to the legends, haints or “boo hags” were unpleasant beings that had somehow liberated themselves from their human hosts.
These dastardly ghosts would then roam the land after nightfall looking to maim or possibly murder anyone who might cross their paths. So, if you believed these stories – as the Gullah people of the South apparently did – it’s understandable that you might want some kind of protection against the evil haints.
So haint blue is supposed to confuse the spirits and therefore keep people safe from harm. But how does it do this? Well, it actually links into some of the factors we discussed earlier – namely that blue can resemble the color of the sky or water.
This particular shade of blue was significant because it was believed that the boo hags were not able to travel through water. It was also thought that the spirits wouldn’t go near the sky because the victims they sought were on the ground. So, by painting ceilings, shutters and even glass bottles this particular hue, people believed that they were being protected.
But while the stories of boo hags might not necessarily be true, the history of haint blue paint is still shocking – and very real. It also has very little to do with supernatural spirits and everything to do with unfathomable hardship. In reality, it all started with indigo plants and a 16-year-old girl named Eliza Lucas.
Indigo dye – an essential component of blue paint – once came predominantly from indigo plants. This was a time long before synthetic indigo could be mass-produced, of course. And in the 18th century the hard-to-get dye from these herbs, trees and shrubs was a sign of affluence.
So, it was a turning point in South Carolinian agricultural history when the young Lucas initially extracted indigo in 1742. This was the moment that the dye was first farmed in the United States, and just five years later, a shipment of the precious material made its way across the Atlantic.
Remember, the American Revolution wouldn’t occur for another 20 years – so at the time the United States was still a British colony. And as indigo was much sought after in Europe, the export of the dye became big business. In fact, at its most successful, over 1.2 million pounds of indigo left the U.S. in a single year, according to the South Carolina Encyclopedia.
Incredibly, Ancestry.com claims that the indigo trade became the second-largest export business in the United States. Those in charge of the cultivation of the dye were therefore earning great wealth. And indigo was being used to create luxurious clothing for Europe’s upper classes. Yet there was one major catch to the large-scale production of the rare dye.
There was no easy way of cultivating the plant, and the process of transforming the plant to dye could take up to 20 hours. This involved labor-intensive, time-consuming methods such as soaking, beating, draining, drying and transporting the goods. It also depended on workers with specialist knowledge.
Where making indigo was such a convoluted process, turning a profit out of trading the product was almost impossible. But in the mid-18th century, wealthy plantation owners would take advantage of their slaves to provide free labor. More specifically, landowners relied on the knowledge and expertise of African slaves.
There was another problem, too. As the demand for indigo increased, so too did the apparent need for slave labor. This led to an influx of African slaves to South Carolina. And according to Ancestry.com, more than half of all slaves landing in America ended up in the state.
Yet it wasn’t just the African slaves who found themselves falling on hard times. The demand for indigo got so great, you see, that plantations eventually started to run out of land. And this resulted in the landowners taking more land from nearby indigenous tribes.
So now the increasing number of slaves found themselves working on ever-expanding territories of land. And, as you might imagine, the slaves had already endured horrifying conditions. The ships used to bring them into the country were typically rife with systematic abuse and disease, after all. Furthermore, a fifth of African slaves in the mid-18th century didn’t even make it off the boat, according to the Black History Month website.
Life on the plantations was likely not much better, either. Louise Miller Cohen, who established the Hilton Head Island Gullah Museum, told Atlas Obscura in January 2020, “If [reparations were] attached to indigo, they would do everything possible to keep the word from ever being mentioned.” The indigo boom, though, would soon come to an end.
The American Revolutionary War took place between 1775 and 1783. And after the conflict ended, the Thirteen Colonies achieved independence and officially founded the United States of America. But the trade of indigo effectively crashed a few years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The United States was no longer beholden to the Brits, after all, and the latter country began to look to India for its indigo needs. So, as quickly as 1802 – just 20 years after the war – the dye wasn’t a factor in South Carolina’s exportation trade. But it would still be another 63 before slavery was abolished – and landowners simply found another trade through which to exploit their workforce.
Those African slaves who first cultivated indigo were the forebears of the Gullah people. And it was their apparent belief in boo rags and haints that seemingly brought the color blue to prominence in the South. So, it’s this group who are also taking strides to reclaim the importance of haint blue.
Heather L. Hodges, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor National Heritage Area’s executive director, told Atlas Obscura, “Indigo dye is deeply rooted in African culture.” She also explained that haint blue “is widely used by Gullah Geechee visual artists and filmmakers as a way of expressing their shared… heritage and history with indigo cultivation.”
For instance, Julie Dash’s acclaimed movie Daughters of the Dust features an indigo theme throughout. It has even been argued that the film’s use of indigo represents the ways in which the characters must interact with their own painful pasts. The picture also happens to be the first from an African-American woman to get distributed across the country.
Both Cohen and Hodges also revealed that they actively worked with the dye to help the locals reconnect with the past. The pair even organized workshops and events around the use of indigo. Cohen told Atlas Obscura, “I’m interested in learning all I can about the crops that caused my people [the] loss of their freedom.”
So the use of haint blue on shutters and porch ceilings throughout South Carolina and beyond is seemingly commonplace. Yet it appears that the history of this shade of blue is far from well known. For the Gullah people and their African ancestors, though, its importance should never be forgotten.