“...barns are red primarily because tradition dictates it be so,”
January 14, 2018 11:50 AM   Subscribe

Falu Red, The Color of Bucolic Barns and Mummified Swedes [The Awl] “According to legend, there was once a goat named Kåre who lived with his shepherd boy in rural Sweden. One day, Kåre returned home with his horns stained a bright, mineral red. Instead of being frightened by his newly Baphomet-looking livestock, the boy summoned all his entrepreneurial impulses and set to work figuring out how he could make money from this occurrence. His goat had fallen headfirst into a pile of earthly riches, discovering a patch of copper-laden land, russet soil and dusty yellow stones. This site would become the famous copper mines of Falun, the source of much of Sweden’s wealth throughout the Middle Ages and the reason we have the term “barn red,” for it was here that Swedes discovered the preserving and protective properties of copper, iron ochre, silica, and zinc. Mixed with linseed oil, these minerals became a deep warm red paint, which was applied to the sides of houses and barns throughout Scandinavia and later, the east coast of America.”

• The Red of Painters [the Paris Review]
“For now, let us open those recipe collections from the end of the Middle Ages, called réceptaires by scholars. These are difficult documents to date or study, not only because they were all copied by hand, each new copy offering a new account of the text, adding or omitting recipes, altering others, changing a product’s name or designating different products by the same name, but also because practical advice and methods continually appear side by side with allegorical or symbolic considerations. The same sentence may contain obscure annotations on the symbolism of colors and practical recommendations on ways to fill a mortar or clean a container. Moreover, notes on quantity and proportion are often imprecise, and cooking, decoction, or maceration times are rarely indicated. As was often the case in the Middle Ages, the ritual seems more important than the results, and numbers, when they are given, seem to have more to do with qualities than quantities. The wording is sometimes surprising. A recipe from Lombardy from the 1400s intended for illuminators begins with this sentence: “If you want to make a bit of good red paint, take an ox … ” Surely the author is having fun here when he calls for an entire animal of enormous size to transform a few drops of blood into a red pigment that will probably be used to paint a tiny surface.”
• The Color Red: A History in Textiles [NPR.org]
“Red was an expensive color in 17th-century France because at the time, the dye was made from a little bug found in Mexican cactus, the cochineal. "People made their living trading this dye," says Rebecca Stevens, curator of Red, the current exhibition at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. "It was as good as gold." According to Stevens, when the Spaniards got to Mexico in the 1500s, cochineal became the New World's major export to Europe. The Spaniards harvested the bugs by scraping them off the cactus plants and then drying them. The dried bugs, which looked like small pellets, were then shipped to Europe. The importers in Europe didn't know whether the little pellets were a berry, a bug, or a mineral. The Spaniards, says Stevens, "spent a lot of time and trouble keeping that a secret to protect their sources." The bottom fell out of the bug market in the middle of the 1800s, when synthetic dyes were invented. Previously, red was only for the rich who could afford the expensive insect dye.”
• Why red is the oldest colour [The Guardian]
“So red can be both happy, honourable, brave and virginal and, well, quite the opposite – it’s all about the cultural context. But whether you see its innocence or its corruption, it turns out that red actually enhances women’s attractiveness to men. It even enhances the value of a painting – though this is down largely to its symbolic significance in Chinese culture affecting the international art market, rather than anything more, well, primitive. And though it is hardly rare (it is the most popular colour on national flags, for a start) there is one area in which red is a distinct minority: only 1-2% of the human population has red hair. The colour is produced by the same pigment, pheomelanin, that makes our lips red. Those beautiful redheads have a higher level of that, and less of the dark pigment eumelanin. In 1888, Vincent Van Gogh wrote that he “sought to express with red and green the terrible human passions”. Ancient, complex and representing extremes – red is nothing if not passionate. Perhaps Van Gogh would have seen red, should he have lived long enough to see the reds in his paintings starting to fade away.”
• How the Color Red Influences Our Behavior [Scientific American]
“Perhaps the most famous example of the pigment's power comes from animal perception. For hundreds of years matadors have taunted bulls by flashing a red cape. According to bullfighting lore, the color choice is said to help hide bloodstains, but it may have other advantages. Whereas humans are trichromats—meaning that we have three types of retinal cones sensitive to long (red), medium (green) and short (blue) wavelengths—cattle are dichromats: they possess only two kinds of cones. Perceptual measurements indicate that cattle can discriminate red from green and blue but not green and blue from each other. Moreover, researchers have found that cattle are more active and aroused in red light than in blue or green light. Another study reported that although fighting bulls may charge all sorts of moving objects, the charges carry greater force when directed against warm colors such as red. In the 1960s the late Spanish-born neuroscientist José M. R. Delgado, then at Yale University, pitted the lure of the red matador's cape against the power of direct brain stimulation by testing whether electronic brain implants could stop a charging bull in its tracks.”
posted by Fizz (19 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
That's only half of the barns/farmhouses in Sweden; the other half are an equally distinct pale yellow. I don't know whether that colour also has a story behind it.
posted by acb at 12:51 PM on January 14, 2018 [3 favorites]


These days, barns are red primarily because tradition dictates it be so, and people like the familiarity of a red barn sitting next to a white clapboard house.
I'd heard that barns are red primarily because red paint is cheaper to buy than white or green paint... (but if that's the case, why wouldn't the clapboard house be red too?)
...Their bodies would be found later, preserved by the same hard mineral matter that they were seeking to excavate, dark red mummies covered in sulfate crystals, their muscles seemingly turned to stone. The most famous example was a man named Fet-Mats who was discovered in 1719, over 40 years after he drowned in a poorly placed tunnel. His former fiancée identified the body. For decades, Fet-Mats was displayed in a glass case in the Stora Kopparbergs Church like some plebian version of Sleeping Beauty. The poor guy reached his final resting place in 1930, nearly 300 years after his death, but not before inspiring a folk ballad, a short story, and a Wagner libretto.)
The short story referred to is probably The Mines of Falun by the excellent writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. It's something else!
posted by ovvl at 1:00 PM on January 14, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'd heard that barns are red primarily because red paint is cheaper to buy than white or green paint... (but if that's the case, why wouldn't the clapboard house be red too?)

Red doesn't show dirt as much, and barns tend to have a lot more dirt and manure being slung around near them. It probably varies by region -- lime and iron oxide are cheap and common pigments if you are in the right area, but not so much if you have to import them.
posted by tavella at 1:36 PM on January 14, 2018 [1 favorite]


Red and White barn paint are the cheapest colors, and cost the same. They are cheap because they are each both popular and based on a cheaply available metal oxide : iron oxide (Fe2O3 or red ochre) for red, titanium dioxide (Ti02) for white. Iron oxide is famously cheap because of the physics of dying stars.
posted by w0mbat at 1:46 PM on January 14, 2018 [8 favorites]


And though it is hardly rare (it is the most popular colour on national flags, for a start) there is one area in which red is a distinct minority: only 1-2% of the human population has red hair. The colour is produced by the same pigment, pheomelanin, that makes our lips red. Those beautiful redheads have a higher level of that, and less of the dark pigment eumelanin.

Worth noting thought that whether things are distinct colours or not varies across languages, and in the countries with the highest prevalence of red hair (Ireland and Scotland), red the regular colour is dearg, while red the hair colour is rua (Irish) or ruadh (Scottish Gaelic, same pronunciation).
posted by kersplunk at 2:22 PM on January 14, 2018 [3 favorites]


Keep in mind that the particular Falu Red paint contains lead that comes from lanarkite. It protects the wood but it's also toxic to humans. The heavy metals in Falu Red are one of the reasons you may not be able to buy original Falu Red paint outside of Sweden.
posted by Julianna Mckannis at 2:28 PM on January 14, 2018 [1 favorite]


There's also a red-orange paint made from lead oxide (called minimum) that was used to slow the infestation of insects into furniture back in the 1600 and 1700s. The author here calls it a lateritious (brick red) wash
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:35 PM on January 14, 2018 [4 favorites]


Though isn't titanium considerably more expensive than iron? Or does white paint require sufficiently less TiO2 than red paint does Fe2O3 to make it balance out?
posted by acb at 3:36 PM on January 14, 2018


Pulling this out of my butt: pretty sure titanium metal is more expensive because it's hard to process the ore, rather than because it is rare. Similar to aluminum before efficient processes were found.
posted by wotsac at 4:01 PM on January 14, 2018 [1 favorite]


acb: TiO2 is a naturally occurring mineral, no smelting needed.
posted by nickggully at 4:14 PM on January 14, 2018 [2 favorites]


So my perceptive son asks, if red dye was so expensive, why did the British manage to outfit their troops in red coats?
posted by lhauser at 4:32 PM on January 14, 2018


acb: "Though isn't titanium considerably more expensive than iron? Or does white paint require sufficiently less TiO2 than red paint does Fe2O3 to make it balance out?"

Before the 1970s, white paint pigment was primarily lead which is very cheap.
posted by octothorpe at 4:40 PM on January 14, 2018 [1 favorite]


I had to call out this little excerpt from the article since it's the most beautiful thing I've read in a month:
There is a Finnish saying, punainen tupa ja perunamaa, meaning “a red house and a potato field,” which suggests that all one needs to be happy is those simple things: a house, a field, some starch.
posted by ragtag at 5:19 PM on January 14, 2018 [9 favorites]


So my perceptive son asks, if red dye was so expensive, why did the British manage to outfit their troops in red coats?
This is a super good question, so I dug into it! It turns out there were multiple grades of red dyes in use (distinguished by vividness, colorfastness, etc.):
The dye used for privates' coats of the infantry, guard and line, was rose madder. A vegetable dye, it was recognized as economical, simple, and reliable and remained the first choice for lower quality reds [...].

Infantry sergeants, some cavalry regiments and many volunteer corps (which were often formed from prosperous middle-class citizens who paid for their own uniforms) used various mock scarlets; a brighter red but derived from cheaper materials than the cochineal used for officers coats. Various dye sources were used for these middle quality reds, but lac, pigment extracted from the vegetable resin shellac, was the most common basis. [...]

Officers' superfine broadcloth was dyed true scarlet with cochineal, a dye derived from insects. This was a more expensive process but produced a distinctive colour that was the speciality of 18th-century English dyers.
posted by ragtag at 5:35 PM on January 14, 2018 [14 favorites]


Thanks, ragtag. Excellent answer.
posted by lhauser at 6:23 PM on January 14, 2018


So my perceptive son asks, if red dye was so expensive, why did the British manage to outfit their troops in red coats?
This is a super good question, so I dug into it! It turns out there were multiple grades of red dyes in use (distinguished by vividness, colorfastness, etc.):


David Hackett Fischer, in Paul Revere's Ride, points out that Americans had an easier time picking off British officers, because their expensive coats didn't fade as fast as private soldiers'.
posted by Hypatia at 6:48 PM on January 14, 2018 [7 favorites]


There is a Finnish saying, punainen tupa ja perunamaa, meaning “a red house and a potato field,” which suggests that all one needs to be happy is those simple things: a house, a field, some starch.

Huh, Tove Janssen was Finnish... I only want to live in peace and plant potatoes and dream!
posted by aws17576 at 6:58 PM on January 14, 2018 [4 favorites]


You can get a surprisingly intense red out of rose madder, especially if you add brazilwood.
posted by tavella at 8:18 PM on January 14, 2018 [1 favorite]


After seeing it mentioned above, I started looking at info on pheomelanin. I found this very interesting article about the carcinogenicity of pheomelanin synthesis. This interests me, anyway, because I've always had red highlights in my hair, and in the past year or so, my hair has become noticeably redder, almost coppery in certain light, and started to shed more. In the same time period, I have also had an increase in whatever is causing my skin to develop ichthyosis, or uh, scales, which can indicate a systemic problem of some sort. I was diagnosed with something systemic, but not anything that usually causes that. It's been interesting chasing down these mysteries!

So of course this all makes me wonder if there's some metabolic thing behind both occurrences, as I'd previously only heard of two things changing an adult's hair color before: hormones and cancer. This article mentioned some other potential influencing factors. I'll have do some more reading about the pigment's synthesis and metabolism, as this is definitely intriguing.
posted by limeonaire at 9:38 PM on January 14, 2018 [3 favorites]


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