As we travel around the United States, I love seeing the similarities of regional traditions. One of my favorites is the iconic farmhouse. I love seeing the large and welcoming front porches surrounded by expansive yards. I grew up in an Iowa farmhouse, but I often wondered why most farmhouses are white. Now, several decades later, I have my answer.
Long before HGTV
In recent years, design shows have picked up on the beauty, charm, and practicality of the typical farmhouse. (Think: “shiplap” and “farmhouse sink.”) Designers have discovered and promoted the nostalgia of days gone by with great success. This resurgence of all things “farmhouse” makes me remember my childhood and smile.
Of course, the very first farmhouses in the United States were in the New England area. Early settlers designed and constructed their homes for functionality and durability. That’s why, when it came to preserving their home’s exterior, they chose whitewash.
What is whitewash paint?
Whitewash isn’t really a paint at all. Instead, it’s a simple mixture of water and lime (calcium oxide). When combined, this mixture appears to steam as it bubbles and eventually settles into a paint-like substance that bleaches or transforms the wood into a bright white color.
Availability of whitewash
The choice of water and lime as a preservative was a practical one. Water and lime were readily available to early farmers. Water came from streams or hand-dug wells, and lime was used on the farm as a disinfectant, to adjust soil acidity, and added to animal feed as a source for calcium.
Advantages of whitewash
Early settlers chose whitewash for several good reasons. First, the white color helped to reflect the harsh sunlight. That kept the interior of the house cooler in the summer months. Also, whitewash fights against mildew, repels odors and insects, and has antibacterial qualities. The whitewash was easy to apply, dried quickly, and was very inexpensive.
Disadvantages of whitewash
The one disadvantage of whitewash was that it didn’t last. Houses “painted” with whitewash often required frequent reapplication of the water and lime mixture. (Remember Tom Sawyer and his whitewashed fence?) It wasn’t long before wealthier folks began to use actual white paint on their homes because it lasted so much longer.
White farmhouses today
I believe that the tradition of white farm homes will continue in popularity. They are iconic and beautiful, even without all of the HGTV hype.
Some whitewash trivia
Did you know that the White House was originally whitewashed in 1798 to protect the porous stone from freezing? It wasn’t until 1818 that a white, lead-based paint was applied to the White House’s exterior.
What regional traditions do you enjoy? Tell me about them in the comments below.
Sign up for a weekly digest of my articles here.