Saturday, December 9, 2023


Why farmhouses are white

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.

Shiplap is trendy these days, sparking funny shirts like this one, mugs, dish towels and more.

First farmhouses

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.

Photo of my childhood home–a white farmhouse.

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.

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Gail Marsh
Gail Marsh
Gail Marsh is an avid RVer and occasional work camper. Retired from 30+ years in the field of education as an author and educator, she now enjoys sharing tips and tricks that make RVing easier and more enjoyable.



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Kelly R (@guest_254581)
2 months ago

Gail, that could be the back porch entrance to my wife Gail’s grand parents home.

Impavid (@guest_254535)
2 months ago

There’s two different stories as to why the White House is white:
1. The original color of the White House was a natural grey in color because it was constructed with sandstone, not painted white. In 1814, during the War of 1812 with the British, the White House was burned with the interior destroyed and the exterior charred. White paint was used to cover up the charred marks. &
2. White paint has nothing to do with covering the burning of the house by the British in 1814. The building was first made white with lime-based whitewash in 1798, when its walls were finished, simply as a means of protecting the porous stone from freezing.

Horseahorse (@guest_254501)
2 months ago

Here in the Arizona desert we add white Portland cement to whitewash. Many buildings in this area were originally built with mud and straw adobe blocks. Unlike kiln fired adobe, original sun dried adobe melts when it rains. The cement in our whitewash restores and protects this vulnerable building product. It is a tradition so cement is added to most white wash in this desert environment.

Neal Davis (@guest_254499)
2 months ago

Thank you, Gail. Sorry, no traditions that I know despite living in east Tennessee for the better part of 66 years.

Tommy Molnar (@guest_254465)
2 months ago

Remember the Chip and Joanna Gaines show on HGTV?

“Shiplap, shiplap, shiplap!”

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