Inside The Oldest Farmhouse In Manhattan – And How It’s Still Standing 235 Years On

Inside The Oldest Farmhouse In Manhattan – And How It’s Still Standing 235 Years On

As you make your way through the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, you turn a corner and see something that makes you stop dead in your tracks. Nestled among the oppressive concrete jungle is an old farmhouse that looks like it belongs in a whole different world. You do a double-take, wondering if you’ve stepped into a time machine and somehow arrived back in the 1700s. And when you get closer to take a peek inside, you realize it’s not just the exterior that’s eerily frozen in time.

Out of place

To say that this farmhouse stands out like a sore thumb would be an understatement! It sits in the Inwood area of Manhattan on Broadway and 204th Street. Looming over it are what look to be high-rise apartment blocks or offices, and traffic whizzes by on the busy road out front.

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Standing for over two centuries

Some might say this farmhouse looks a little out of place. And that’s hardly a surprise given that it was constructed back in 1784. But the property has held its ground for over 230 years — even as the modern world has claimed every inch of space around it. Who would have thought that something like this could still be found in a major city today? And especially in New York.

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Built by Dutch immigrants

If the walls of this farmhouse could speak, we bet they’d have some pretty incredible stories to tell. It was built by the Dyckman clan, who left their home in the Netherlands back in the 17th century to make a new life for themselves in America. And the family settled in the country for roughly a decade before building their humble abode.

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Tied to a historical event

Before deciding on what is now Manhattan, the family lived in a different part of New York. By all accounts, they enjoyed living there. And if tragedy hadn’t have struck, then they probably wouldn’t have had to relocate downtown.

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Modern-day museum

An expert on the family’s history revealed what happened to the Mail Online back in March 2018. This person was Meredith Horsford, who oversees the everyday operations of the farmhouse as an executive director. The historic property now serves as a museum, you see.

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Fleeing from the war

Horsford told the website, “The Dyckman family came to America from the Netherlands in the 1600s. They were in what’s now called Harlem, but then built their first home just northeast of where the current farmhouse is located. But the family fled the home when the Revolutionary War broke out.” Once they finally returned, they were faced with a devastating scene.

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Building on Broadway

“The house was destroyed along with their orchards,” Horsford explained. “So, William Dyckman decided to rebuild in the location where the home is now on Broadway. And the family lived in that farmhouse until the mid-1800s.” Talk about bouncing back! Mind you, the family very nearly walked away from the property altogether.

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Trying to cash in

William, who represented the third generation of Dyckmans living in America, passed away in 1787 — just three years after the new farmhouse had been put together. And following his death, the clan decided to cash in on the estate. But one person seemingly got in the way of those plans.

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250-acre property

That someone was Jacobus Dyckman, William’s son. He wanted to assume control of the farmhouse. And he got his wish in the end, settling on there in 1793. Back then, though, the estate was much bigger. It spanned 250 acres of land and was made up of more than one property.

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A spacious estate

As well as the farmhouse, there were three more homes peppered throughout the land. And you would have also found a barn, cider mill, stable, and a few corn cribs. All in all, then, it was a bustling space. But how many people stayed there after Jacobus took over?

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A home to ten

Well, according to the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum Alliance website, the main building housed a group of ten in 1820. Jacobus was one of them, of course, and he had three children. Their names were Isaac, Michael, and Jacob. And Jacobus’ niece and grandson came to join the clan, too.

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A difficult time

Plus, sheltered in the extra buildings were 20 locals. It was like a mini-community of sorts and was probably full of activity. Even so, it’s likely no amount of company could make up for the difficulties that Jacobus faced in his lifetime.

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Losing half his family

From the years 1809 to 1822, Jacobus lost five of his 11 children, his spouse Hannah, and one of their grandchildren. That’s seven family deaths in 13 years. Heartbreaking. It would have been perfectly understandable if Jacobus had spent the time shut away in mourning. But it seemed nothing could stop him from working.

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Farming in rough conditions

Jacobus continued to run the farm in spite of those personal tragedies. He and the workers managed to overcome northern Manhattan’s less-than-ideal landscape to grow things like apple and cherry trees. They also produced lots of nutritious vegetables and fruit on top of that, making the best of the land.

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Growing their estate

And just like the fruit and veg, the Dyckmans’ ownership of the land continued to grow, too. By the late 1860s it spanned well over 300 acres in Manhattan. It goes without saying that that’s a pretty significant chunk. As that was happening, though, the dynamics inside the farmhouse shifted in a major way.

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Jacobus’ sons take over

When Jacobus passed away in 1832, sons Michael and Isaac took control of the main building, following in their dad’s footsteps. They stayed there for the next two decades or so, before packing their bags for one of the other places on the massive estate. And then things took an intriguing turn.

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Big decision

As we noted earlier, one of Jacobus’ grandsons lived in the farmhouse back in 1820. His name was James Frederick Smith. And once Isaac had passed away in 1868, James had a pretty big choice to make. According to Isaac’s last will and testament, James would have to take a dramatic step — or he wouldn’t receive any benefits.

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Taking on a new name

Isaac had wanted roughly 340 acres of the family estate to be auctioned off, and the farmhouse came under that. He stated that James could keep sections of the farm, though, as well as receiving a financial inheritance — but on one condition. Basically, he had to adopt a different name: Isaac Michael Dyckman.

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Selling off the farm

Jacobus’ grandson agreed to the terms, taking on his updated name. He got his section of the estate, and by 1871, the rest had been bought up — including the farmhouse. Fortunately, that didn’t signal the end of the Dyckmans’ ties to it. The newly named Isaac Michael Dyckman had two children of his own, after all.

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Buying back their family home

The kids’ names were Fannie Fredericka Dyckman Welch and Mary Alice Dyckman Dean. And the sisters were drawn back to their family’s old home in 1915, which was when the farmhouse was on the verge of being torn down. Given that it was already in a pretty bad state, the siblings decided to buy the place to save it.

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Turning it into a museum

Then, once Mary and Fannie got hold of the farmhouse, their respective partners helped them to bring it back to life. After the work was completed, the sisters opened it up as a museum that celebrated their clan’s time there. They eventually handed the keys to New York officials in 1916, who assumed control of the building.

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Manhattan curb appeal

The house has been through quite a bit, then. But walking in there today, you wouldn’t think a day has passed since the sisters handed over the keys. And the same could probably be said for the outside, too.

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Dropping the street level

As far back as 1885, the sidewalk was pretty much level with the farmhouse. But those pavements were eventually lowered down by about 15 feet in the following years. As a result, the building is now a lot higher up, with paved walls and greenery filling out the lower sections.

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Hidden garden

On the other side of those walls, you’ll find a nice garden that boasts plenty of plant life and even its own small cannon! It’s a lovely spot amidst the hustle and bustle of New York City. And the outside of the property, which is being held together by fieldstone, wood, and bricks, is a nice contrast to all of the surrounding concrete and red brick.

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Heading inside

The farmhouse also has a front porch that overlooks the street below. But how does the interior look in comparison? Does it retain the old stylings of its shell? Well, it’s safe to say that as soon as you walk through the door, you leave behind the shiny modernity of the skyscrapers lining the streets.

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Old family living room

As you enter, the room on the left contains a couple of desks, a fireplace, and a grandfather clock in the corner. “This room was like a living room for the Dyckman family,” the guidebook explains. “They would use this room for spending time together, reading, writing, and even telling stories.”

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Cozy little parlor

We can certainly picture that. After all, this is a very cozy space. But before you start to imagine yourselves relaxing in the parlor, let’s take a closer look at the desk next to the fireplace. This spot is covered with old newspapers and notes, with even more stored along the cubby-holes further back. There’s even a quill and ink pot in the corner, too!

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The “Relic Room”

By itself, this room is a fascinating snapshot of the past. And this theme continues as you get deeper inside the farmhouse. There’s a space known as the “Relic Room” which contains some of the Dyckman family’s old possessions, safely stored in glass cabinets. Plus, the ground floor has its own bedroom, which is where Jacobus Dyckman was supposed to have slept.

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A look upstairs

Head up the stairs and you’ll reach a landing with four surrounding doorways. Hundreds of years ago, this area is thought to have been a single room. But some major works took place to change that.

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Tiny bedrooms

Yes, the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum Alliance website claims that bedrooms were finally installed on that floor during the 1820s. It’s suggested that this is where Jacobus’ kids and grandson may have stayed. One of the rooms is fairly small, with a long, green couch resting against the wall.

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Spacious master

But they’re not all this cramped. One bedroom has its own fireplace next to the windows, with an armchair and table on the right-hand side. There’s a chest of drawers to the left, while a large bed sits along the adjoining wall. The cozy feel continues!

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Basement kitchen

Pretty nice, right? Some of our modern bedrooms pale in comparison! Now, we know what you must be thinking: where’s the kitchen? People in the olden days still had to eat. Well, it’s actually nestled away in the property’s basement. And there’s a clever reason for this location.

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Dual-purpose fireplace

Horsford noted, “The farmhouse was built on original Manhattan bedrock. You can see that inside their winter kitchen, which is located in what we call the basement today.” The huge hearth below wouldn’t only cook the family’s food, but it’d provide warmth to the floorboards on the first floor, too.

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Summer kitchen

So yes, the basement kitchen essentially doubled up as a heater over the colder months! A real clever bit of planning. How about the summer, though? Where did the Dyckmans prepare their meals then? Quite simply, they used a different room. This second kitchen could be found outside the farmhouse in a small shack.

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Home for the warden

Yet unlike the basement kitchen, this room hasn’t been preserved for visitors. Instead, it was converted into a living space for the museum’s warden, who stays there to this day. It resembles a cozy little cottage from the outside, with white wooden boards lining the exterior walls.

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Open to the public

At the moment, the museum is open twice a week, if you fancy taking a look for yourself. But the farmhouse has a few other uses as well. As Horsford told the Mail Online, “Throughout the year we host public programming for the community. We do history lectures, bilingual read alouds and a summer camp for children where we talk about what it’s like to live on a farm.”

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Community space

Horsford went on, “It’s a great opportunity to teach kids where their food comes from. We work with local artists and display their art inside the house. It’s kind of cool to have contemporary art among historical furnishings. We also do kids art workshops and conduct a math workshop in the summer.” So, we get the feeling that this old farmhouse will be sticking around for some time yet!

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Traditional farm

Come out into the countryside and farmhouses like this are everywhere. But instead of having a red-brick office block sitting in the backyard, they’ll likely have a red barn. You can picture it can’t you: a quaint little white house next to a red barn. Oh, and there will probably be a windmill there, too. How idyllic. But have you ever stopped to think why these barns are red? The answer is fascinating.

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Many barns

Looking first at barns, we might ask why farms even have them. Well, it isn’t just to charm people from the city who’re visiting on a daytrip! They have functions that are vital to farmers. Those functions have altered over the years, with advances in machinery and practice in the world of agriculture — but some things never seem to change.

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Storage space

Barns have several uses. On a dairy farm, they’re central in keeping the animals out of bad weather and as places for milking. They’re areas for storing animal feed as well. On an arable farm, they’re also used to store crops. And it may not have been the case back in the day when they were first built, but nowadays, a barn’s a good place to keep vehicles.

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Milking area

Farmers haven’t always restricted barns to one of these purposes, of course. For instance, a farmer might use a barn for milking, but then they’d keep hay on the upper level to feed the cows with. Another farmer might also house their horses in the same barn that they used for milking.

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German pride

You can imagine that the more purposes you’d have for a barn, the larger it’d have to be. So barns that were big would instill pride in their owners. People say that farmers of German origin, when they came to construct their farms, would focus on the barn before they even considered their house!

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Socializing

Some barns had more social uses. Carla Due explained this when speaking to Nebraska’s Wessels Living History Farm. “If they had a real nice barn, they would have a barn dance up in the haymow before they started putting up hay,” she recalled. “And those were wonderful because the whole neighborhood got together, just brought whatever you had and had lunch together.”

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Machine sheds

Farmers didn’t have to stick to one barn, either. A lot of them would have a whole bunch of structures. This was increasingly true when mechanization started to be a bigger part of agriculture, as most farmers will store machines in sheds. And across the middle of the country, farmers mixed grain and stock-rearing, so they’d have little hog barns and chicken coops.

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Smaller spaces

So pretty much wherever you go in the United States, you’ll see barns, but they do differ from place to place. In the southern states, the warmer weather means there’s less of a requirement for big barns to keep the animals in. The animals just hang out in the open air instead. So you’ll tend to see smaller barns that have distinct functions, such as tobacco-curing.

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Tractor parking

Time’s seen big changes in the use of barns. During the 1940s work horses were largely phased out. Cowboys would still employ them in the ranching and cattle-rearing states of the West, but they weren’t used any more as draft animals. So their quarters were pulled out of the barns, and the buildings were turned over to tractor parking, with bigger doors now needed to allow the machines to enter.

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Changing technology

Technology also saw the end of corncribs, as the corn combine meant that they were no longer useful. Now barns featured massive drying areas that stored the kernels. Similarly, as hay bales became enclosed in plastic, hay barns became less necessary. And where they still existed, they changed, with the old systems of moving hay becoming automated.

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Metal takeover

The appearance of the barns changed, too, as the traditional wooden structures gave way to metal. So the stereotypical look of farms became less common, shifting to more functional materials. The old farms haven’t vanished, of course, even if these days you’re more likely to see a metal shed than a red barn and windmill.

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Wind pumps

These days, the windmills have often rusted a bit, since they aren’t built so much anymore, though they’re still in use. But why were they built at all? Well, mostly they drive pumps that pull water up from the earth to be drunk by the animals. That’s right: they’re like wind-driven spigots for cows!

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Water works

The way it works is as follows: wind makes the windmill turn, and it functions as a lever for the pump. The pump pulls up water from aquifers, which aren’t far below the ground, and it gushes into tanks. When the tanks are full, the windmill’s disconnected from the pump, which comes to a halt. Windmills can irrigate fields in this manner as well.

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Electric power

These days, farmers put in more up-to-date windmills that work as turbines. They generate electricity from the wind, which in turn powers irrigation. It’s an especially useful method in places such as Afghanistan, where windmills have, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, sometimes replaced generators powered by diesel.

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Stagnant

Another advantage of having a windmill is that a farmer can ensure that their water doesn’t get the chance to stagnate. What often happens on a farm is that water sits in a reservoir ready for use around the farm. This may result in stagnation, though, unless it’s aerated. Which is where the windmill comes in, pushing air into the water.

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Why red?

So that’s windmills, but what about the barns? Why are they red? Well, some have suggested it’s to stop cows getting lost when they’re coming home. That can’t be it, though, because cattle can’t tell the difference between red and green. Another hypothesis is that they’re red because Scandinavians used the color, trying to make the barns look as though they were constructed from bricks.

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No paint

That this isn’t true becomes obvious when you learn that the first Europeans to arrive in New England didn’t even paint their barns. They just couldn’t afford to do so. But that meant the rain and wind wreaked havoc on the wooden the structures. So come the end of the 18th century, they’d concluded that they needed something to cover them with.

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Rusty mix

And amazing as it may sound, they settled on a mixture of rust and oil. Now this didn’t leave the barns the striking red that we’re used to seeing. Nope, it tinted them in a kind of dark orange. The rust, or ferrous oxide to get technical, proved a good agent for tinting the “paint” and didn’t cost much.

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Linseed oil

In fact, the ferrous oxide could be gotten from the soil. Then the farmers would blend it with lime and skimmed milk. They’d also use linseed oil, which they could make from vegetation, and that mixture left the wood coral in color. Very fetching! They soon found that coating them with these materials made the barns less in winter.

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Fungi business

Farms usually had lots of rust to hand, and it had two really useful properties. These didn’t include turning the mixture red, though. No, they were that it’s fatal for mosses and fungi, and that it made a useful ingredient in sealants.

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Paint it black

But not all barns were painted red. Nope, in Kentucky many farmers coated their barns with creosote, which made the buildings black. This kept termites out of the wood, and that wasn’t the only benefit. A black color also makes the inside of a barn toasty, which is really handy when you’re trying to cure tobacco. The idea caught on, so it became a style choice for other farmers in the state as well.

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“Haint” blue

Barns aren’t the only things with an interesting color on farms, wither. There are also porch ceilings, for instance, which are often blue. In the south of the U.S., a sort of blue-green called “haint blue” was chosen to keep “haints,” or ghosts, away. And in Victorian times, people used blue to paint the ceiling of their porches because this looked like the sky on a nice day — making the porch welcoming on rainy days as well.

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Emerald shutters

Shutters were often colored in a pretty emerald shade. This came after a pigment called Paris green had been developed in 1775. It was colored with arsenic, which is a deadly toxin. So you probably wouldn’t want to lick the shutters, but they were pretty good at keeping mosquitoes at bay!

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Why white?

But what about the farmhouses themselves? Why were they white? Well, just like the barns, it was too costly to paint them, so farmers needed a cheap alternate. That came in the form of whitewash, which is a mixture of lime, salt and water with other things, such as pine tar or molasses.

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Long-lasting

Though these days we think of whitewashing as being a stopgap solution, it’s good for many years when it’s put on properly. The solution’s very thick and can prevent the weather from getting to the wood. This allows it to protect the structure for decades. And long-lasting paint obviously appealed to busy farmers.

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Costly luxury

It was also economical to produce. The farmers didn’t have to pay for lime if they could find limestone, and if they couldn’t, they could simply burn the shells of mollusks. When you consider that paint was a costly luxury for most farmers, you can see why something you could just make yourself appealed to them.

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Nontoxic

It wasn’t just the cost that made whitewash attractive, either. Another benefit is its lack of toxicity for animals. That’s right. You don’t have to worry that your pigs will get sick if they chew on your paint, and no gases are given off that can hurt them. It also doesn’t contain lead, which for a long time was found in paints.

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Fresh smell

The chief ingredient of whitewash is lime, which has many uses. It keeps things smelling fresh by covering over bad smells. Insects don’t like it, and if your farm was somewhere warm and wet, the lime would prevent the growth of mildew. It was particularly useful for dairy farmers because it’s antibacterial.

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Hygienic wash

This ability to kill bacteria makes treated wood not only look cleaner than stuff you haven’t whitewashed, but also actually be cleaner. So it’s really useful for the inside walls of a kitchen, for instance. And fungi and mold don’t do well when they try to grow on wood that’s been whitewashed, very handy if you want the wood to last.

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Free entry

And while whitewash blocks out nasties, it does allow water to get through, so moisture can enter and exit the wood. That’s good because it means that it doesn’t get stuck under the whitewash. As a result, the wood doesn’t rot as much as it would if the water did get stuck inside it.

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Warm color?

Remember the black barns? Well, you don’t always want the interior of a barn to be too warm. So whitewash can help. Use it on the roof of a building, and the inside will be cooler by as much as 10°F than one with a dark roof. You can use it to protect from rusting and on trees to keep bugs away as well.

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Easy to use

Using whitewash also doesn’t require any special techniques. You can whitewash a house very rapidly and, in a big advantage for busy farming families, everyone can join in the chore of painting. Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer famously whitewashed the fence of the family residence, and that was entirely feasible — kids can easily handle the task.

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Still fresh

So whitewash became incredibly popular, and people were still using it in the 1900s due to its reputation for good hygiene. But in time paint began to dominate. Farmers didn’t want to lose all the benefits of whitewash, though, so they still painted their houses in white, even if they were now using premixed paint.

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Long history

Farmers probably didn’t invent whitewash, though, at least not American ones. That’s because it’s been used for many thousands of years. In ancient Mesopotamia, sometime in the 3000s B.C., people were whitewashing buildings, including the White Temple, which was coated inside and out. And the substance may be older even than that.

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Ancient coverage

It was used in ancient Egypt as well. We know that because excavators found the substance on the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. And it continued to be used into the times of ancient Greece and Rome. Yes, the Colosseum was coated in whitewash, and so was the Acropolis in Athens.

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Biblical mention

The pale liquid even turns up in the Bible, when Jesus castigates some of the day’s religious figures in the Book of Matthew. The Messiah says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.”

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Fire retardant

Whitewash stayed in use throughout the Dark Ages and into the medieval period. Two massive fires struck England in 1135 and in 1212, with the latter resulting thousands of deaths. The authorities then demanded that people who lived in towns use whitewash on their houses so that they wouldn’t catch fire again.

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Mixed materials

Mind you, whitewash in the distant past wasn’t necessarily the same stuff as U.S. farmers later used, though lime was often part of the mix. King Tut’s tomb was daubed with a wash mixed with milk, but elsewhere people used flour, oyster shells or eggs. There were no hard and fast rules for making the white liquid, then, except of course the resulting color.

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Lovely looks

So the material had a long history and was pretty commonplace. When the colonizers then came to America, it shouldn’t be surprising that they used whitewash to keep everything fresh and clean. And to this day, farmhouses bear coatings that, even if they aren’t necessarily themselves whitewash, are supposed to remind onlookers of it.

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