The barn from the c. 1700 Hutchinson-Kimball House in Danvers, Mass.

Black is the new white

As more and more white structures around the region are being painted black, can we call this color traditional? Is black the new white? And if so why?

Editor’s Note: The author is the Chair of the Egremont Historical Commission. This article makes an interesting companion to “Black Beauties” by Ritch Holben that we posted on July 14,

Picking a color to paint a house or a barn these days can be difficult. The little square in the paint store, spread over 1,000 square feet of building, can easily lead to color regret. What works in a summer landscape of green, looks awkward in the harsher monochromes of winter. And why have certain colors become so ingrained in our visual vocabulary that our eyes instantly reject a barn painted baby blue, for no other reason than we have never seen one before?

As more and more white structures around the region are being painted black, can we call this color traditional? Is black the new white? And if so why?

First, of course, the question is why paint a building at all? In our earliest settlements there was no color. Builders used to take weather – sun, wind, moisture and water drainage – into their calculations in siting buildings and seasoning their wood before building anything. The right wood and siting would allow a building to stand for years without a paint job because the wood did not allow moisture or fungus to build up and rot it out.

Looking for faster easier ways to build, paint became a way of seasoning and preserving buildings. In the case of black barns, creosote, or coal tar was a cheap and available material in the south. It has both antiseptic and preservative properties. This stops termites, protects the wood, and the black color retains heat – useful when curing tobacco leaves and keeping livestock warmer in unheated barns.

Red barns further north were painted with a mixture of linseed oil, milk, lime and ferrous oxide – rust. Fungus growing on damp wood could rot out a house in no time but the addition of rust, both created the reddish color and controlled fungal growth.

PHOTO 2 -Kentucky black barn
A traditional black Kentucky tobacco barn. Black barns raise the heat inside, aiding the curing of tobacco. Many got their color from creosote, which repelled termites. Eventually, many Kentucky barns were painted black just as a fashion statement. CREDIT: Photograph in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

By the late 19th century, mass-produced paints made with chemical pigments became widely available. Red was the least expensive color, so it remained the most popular for use on barns, except for a brief period when whitewash was cheaper and white barns started popping up.   White barns were also common on dairy farms, possibly because of the color’s association with cleanliness and purity.

Looking into the history of color can often lead to new insights into why a certain color was being used and may help you choose an appropriate color palette for any house, no matter what the age. Certainly here in New England our homes range from the 18th century colonial, through the painted ladies of the late Victorian to the mid twentieth century modern and beyond. The more you know, the more informed your choice and the happier you will be with the results. A good place to start your research is with your local Historical Commissions and Historical Societies.

A black barn makes a fashion statement.
A black barn makes a fashion statement.

Besides working to help promote a pride of place in our New England architecture, many of the Historical Commissions in our region can offer advice on the history of your home on the MACRIS files. The Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System can be found online and has files on every Town in the Commonwealth. Egremont has over 200 properties listed that are considered by the state to be a “cultural resource”. That is almost half the housing stock in town!

So is black the new white? It certainly can stand up as a traditional color, whether the price of crude makes it the cheapest one these days is a matter of debate!

One thought on “Black is the new white

  • Hi Susan, I really appreciate getting a better historical perspective on the use of the color black in architecture. It’s long been one of my favorite choices to use in the Berkshires, but am happy to see it has precedent in other parts of the country too.

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