LESLIE: As a child, you probably asked, “Why is the sky blue?” But have you ever thought about why barns are red?
TOM: Good question. The red barn is about as American as apple pie and baseball. But the reasons for traditional paint colors are not well known. Here to fill us in is This Old House host Kevin O’Connor.
KEVIN: Hi, guys.
TOM: So, long before we had color wheels to help us choose a paint palette, there were much more practical reasons for the colors that we picked for our homes. And I think that the story behind the choice of red paint for barns is a good place to begin. It wasn’t just that farmers decided it looked best, was it?
KEVIN: No. It really wasn’t. I mean it ended up being a pretty good choice because, right, we do all like that red barn?
KEVIN: But they weren’t painting them red because they wanted them to look good. They were basically painting them red because it was the cheapest option available.
TOM: They’re practical folks, those farmers.
KEVIN: They are practical folks. And it’s sort of use what you had.
KEVIN: Historically, red paint was made with a tinting of ferrous oxide. It’s basically rust. You know what that looks like. And it turns out it’s very plentiful and it’s very cheap. And so they would mix it into the paint to give it a little bit of color and that was the cheapest way to actually get the barn painted.
And in fact, a lot of farmers, they weren’t even painting their barns at all; they were just putting the wood up. They were very utilitarian. They did realize that a coat or two of paint actually helped protect the wood from the elements and extend the life. And being practical people, we started painting our barns. And red paint was what we had.
TOM: And they had a very interesting recipe for paint. They mixed the ferrous oxide with skimmed milk, linseed oil and lime. You can’t make this stuff up.
KEVIN: We talk about using what you have, right?
KEVIN: A little bit of extra skim milk floating around the farm and next thing you know, you’re painting your barn using …
TOM: It turned out it worked.
KEVIN: It worked and we’re still painting our barns red. And thank goodness because it’s a great-looking barn.
LESLIE: That really looks great.
Now, it’s funny that barns became red but homes, traditionally, were white. So how did that come about?
KEVIN: Well, so, white paints, back in the day, were made with lead or zinc oxide. And that was a little bit more expensive than the red barn paint. And it actually – I would take issue with something you said, Leslie. It wasn’t traditional. It did come about eventually but going way back, white paint was hard to get. To make a paint that actually was crisp and white was difficult. And when they were able to figure out that formula, white became sort of identified and associated with cleanliness. So now, all of a sudden, it was like a premium thing that you get: a beautiful, spanking-white house.
We’ve talked to paint experts on the show who tell us that they will attach it back to the Greek Revival when we’re trying to make these beautiful houses, kind of get the image of the Greek Parthenon out there.
KEVIN: So white was something that people really desired. And it’s – certainly, Victorians picked it up the inside the house because they really wanted to associate it with things that were clean, things that were almost sterile.
TOM: Well, we talked about the red, we talked about the white. Now let’s talk about the blue. Have you ever noticed how porch ceilings are often painted blue? There’s a reason for that.
KEVIN: There is a reason for that. I’ve heard a whole bunch of crazy reasons.
LESLIE: And that’s really a Southern thing, too, right?
KEVIN: I would say it is a Southern thing although I did it on my New England porch when I redid mine a couple years back. I think it’s sort of spread around. I had an old-timer tell me that they used to do it to keep the flies away.
KEVIN: I don’t know how that works. A brighter color. But I think, probably, you could put your finger on one thing with a bit of certainty: that bluish-green is an old tradition, as you say, form the South. And it was for protection from haints. These were restless spirits; I suppose they had returned from the dead. And the blue paint was supposed to prevent the haints from entering your home. And in fact, that greenish-blue mix used for painting Southern porches is often referred to as “haint blue.”
TOM: Who knew that the ghost didn’t like blue paint?
KEVIN: Who knew?
TOM: As simple as that.
Now, let’s talk about lead. That was a really common additive in paint for many, many years until we figured out that it was poison, that is. But there’s actually a color history there, as well.
KEVIN: Well, so the lead compounds were added to the paint, back in the day, as a pigment. And it created a specific color, depending on whichever compound you used. So, for example, one type of lead would make the paint a white or a cream color. And if you used a different type of red, it could make it a bright red paint.
TOM: But it also added durability to the paints. You know, I spent 20 years as a home inspector and as I went through many old houses, you’d find a lot of old artifacts. And I remembered one time finding some old cans of paint that were labeled in big, bold, block letters as it came off the store shelves: White Lead Paint or Red Lead Paint. Back then, manufacturers were actually bragging about the fact that their paint contained lead.
KEVIN: And contractors loved them.
KEVIN: And they made the switch. Now we know better. Now, lead is taken out of the paints because it’s not good for the kids and the damage it can cause. But the contractors who had to go through that transition – you listen to these guys and they miss the old lead-paint days because it was a very high-quality paint.
KEVIN: Spread well, dried well.
LESLIE: Mm-hmm. Dried fast.
KEVIN: Yeah. Had great adhesion. So they missed the lead. Fortunately, through better science today, we can do without the ill effects of lead and still get some of the great qualities from paints today.
TOM: Fantastic. Well, we can’t do without your great advice. Kevin O’Connor, the host of TV’s This Old House, thank you so much for stopping by The Money Pit.
KEVIN: It’s always my pleasure to be here.
LESLIE: And you can catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For local listings and step-by-step videos of many common home improvement projects, visit ThisOldHouse.com.
TOM: And This Old House and Ask This Old House are brought to you on PBS by GMC. GMC, we are professional grade.