The Evolution of the American Barn

Discover the interesting history of American barn styles.

American Barn

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Who doesn’t enjoy catching sight of an American barn when they drive down the road? Discover the interesting history of American barn styles—and enjoy these historic barn pictures. Plus, we answer that popular question: Why are many barns painted red?

The farmer’s barn had to be built wisely because invariably it housed his greatest assets. This agricultural building was more important than his own house. Without a way to protect farm animals or store crops, early settlers had few ways to survive.

Barns were about common sense and usefulness—and economics, not style.

Every new barn, therefore, was a “new and improved” version compared with past efforts—not only in construction materials and techniques but also in orientation to the Sun and prevailing winds, as well as in accessibility and general efficiency.

There were no blueprints for barns. The good builder often brought knowledge from his home country and also gained knowledge from neighboring barns in his construction. The characteristic looks that we associate with barns are the result of this natural evolution.

Later farms came to specialize in certain crops, and barns became specialized as well (dairy, fruit, grains, tobacco, poultry, etc.). What we think of as a classic barn with the gambrel roof is a dairy barn, but there were smaller barnlike structures for different types of animals or different kinds of crops. 

Most of what we learned through this natural evolution is still widely employed in the barns of small farms today. In the years ahead, we will use still newer and more improved ideas in the continuing modification of the barn.

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Photo: Barker’s Farm

Early Log Barn

The early log barn typically had a thatched roof. Mortaring the spaces between the lower logs kept cold winds out. Upper spaces were left open for the circulation of air, which helped to keep moisture under control. In early barns, an open central hall provided a workspace to process grains and a breeze for “winnowing.” Storage space was on either side.

Braced Frame Construction

Once sawn lumber was easily obtainable in the early colonies, most barns were of braced frame construction, which allowed larger and more adaptable structures. Air could circulate through the cracks between the boards. Large doors provided good light. Small barns could be attached horizontally, with shed-roof additions on the sides and back.

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In the early 1700s, farmers needed more room. Adding more stories in a new barn provided more space under the same roof area and on the same-size foundation. Access to the barn was greatly improved if the barn could be situated on a hillside, allowing the farmer to drive in at several levels. Doors at opposite ends offered good cross-ventilation and allowed wagons to drive through. Rows of windows over the door became a popular method of letting in more light.

Brick Barns

Brick barns became popular in the mid–19th century. Bricks were omitted in decorative patterns to let in air and light. Farmers adapted the styles to whatever construction materials were common in their area. Barns constructed of logs, stone, brick, or even cordwood were carried to a high degree of development. Also, the influence of various cultures and nationalities showed strongly from region to region. Many unusual examples survive.

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The town dweller’s barn became large enough to accommodate only the nonfarming home owner’s transportation animals, feed, and equipment: It was the early garage. During the mid-1800s, his barn was built to look like his house, being similarly sided in board-and-batten or clapboard and paint.

As more machines were invented to help the farmer increase his yield, the farmer’s barn grew in size and efficiency, too. Simple devices such as trapdoors, hoists, ramps, chutes, and sliding doors were widely employed to move materials through the barn. The addition of a louvered cupola increased ventilation and added a dash of style.

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In the mid–19th century, experimental barns, such as the round barn, generated much interest among farmers in the efficient utilization of space and greatly influenced the layouts of later barns.

A gambrel roof allowed more usable space overhead than a gabled roof. With electricity providing light and ventilation, internal combustion engines replacing men and animals, and mass production techniques being employed wherever possible, many of the farmer’s problems were overcome and nature’s direct influence on the design of barns became less crucial.

Why Are Most Barns Painted Red?

Early farmers didn’t paint their barns at all. Why waste money on paint? However, by the late 1700s, farmers began to look for a way to protect their wood barns from the elements. It was a functional need, not a decor decision.

Farmers made their own paint, usually with a mix of skimmed milk, lime, and red iron oxide earth pigments—which had a red tint. This created a plasticlike coating that hardened quickly and lasted for years. Linseed oil was subsequently added to the recipe to provide the necessary soaking quality.

Mixing the oxide into the paint protected the wood from mold and moss (which caused decay) and also resulted in a deep red color. It so happens that darker colors also absorb more of the Sun’s rays and kept buildings warmer in the wintertime. Thus, the American “barn red” was born.

In the mid- to late 1800s, paint companies started making barn paint with metallic oxides especially formulated for barn use. The red paints sold at a much lower price per gallon than house paint, hence attracting the ever-so-thrifty farmer. Red was the color of favor until whitewash became cheaper, at which point white barns began to spring up.

If you are interested in painting a building “barn red,” it’s a shade of red that is 98% saturated and 49% bright. The RYB color model is composed of 48.63% red, 3.92% yellow, and 0.78% blue. Many paint manufacturers, such as Sherwin Williams®, carry a “barn red” color.

Ready to paint? See our articles on how to know how much paint you need and 10 pointers on how to use a paintbrush.

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