Why Buildings Are Red in Sweden and more!

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Hell on earth, falukorv and little red cottages

Ever travelled through the Swedish countryside? Or at least seen it on TV? Did you notice that the majority of all buildings – homes, barns, boathouses, every shed – are red?

A little red cottage by the edge of the forest.

Red cottages with white corners and other white trimmings are as iconic for Sweden as Dalecarlian horses, a Swedish signature mentioned in many songs: “den röda lilla stugan invid grinden” ( ~ the little red cottage by the wicket).

The history of the red paint goes back to approximately 850 AD. That’s when they started mining in Stora Kopparberget (= the Great Copper Mountain) in today’s city of Falun. Over time, the mine developed to a major industrial center, at times delivering two thirds of all copper used in Europe.

In 1347 AD, a Letter of Privileges was issued by king Magnus Eriksson for the foundation of Stora Kopparbergs Bergslag. Today, having extended its operations to several other industrial sectors under the name Stora Enso, this company is considered to be the oldest company in the world still in business.

The ore in Stora Kopparberget contains not only copper, but also sulfur, iron and several other minerals. The methods for extraction were rather primitive and very destructive to the environment. Visitors to the area described the place as a hell on earth, covered by thick black smoke, stinking of pungent sulfur. The air in the nearby city of Falun was so thick of soot and sulfur that people ran into each other, not being able to see more than a few feet. The mine itself was a narrow hole in the ground more than 1,000 ft deep, and there was no vegetation around it for several miles in any direction.

Hell on earth, abandoned in 1992.
Hell on earth, abandoned in 1992.

The great scientist Carl von Linné (a.k.a. Carolus Linnaeus) visited the mine in 1734 AD and described it with horror as the hell on earth. He climbed down in the hole on the sinuous and flaccid ladders to find ”twelve hundred black demons working in the caverns, surrounded by darkness, soot and smoke”. The workers died young, coughing, with noseblood, headache, and skin like leather. And the security arrangements were poor: many died in accidents in the darkness. One of the supervisors wrote ”Där går mången till arbetet frisk och röder, Men blir upwindad lytt, förlamad, lem-löös, döder” ( ~ “Many a man goes to work being healthy and red, But is hoisted up maimed, lame, limb-lose and dead.”

The tools used to quarry the rock and copper ore was sledgehammers, chisels and wrecking bars. But before the workers could use these tools, they had to make the rock crack, creating small fissures and become brittle: this was achieved by lighting a fire against the rock wall, keeping it burning for many hours, and finally pour cold water on the rock. This procedure smothered the clime with black sulfurous smoke and a haze of foul-smelling steam. And once the ore had been hoisted to the ground level, it had to be further roasted for several months (!) to get rid of the sulfur content, before it could be refined to copper. Huge amounts of wood was needed; it is estimated that in the middle of the 17th century, more than 3,000,000 cubic feet of wood was burned each year. In 1687 AD, the mine collapsed and created the giant hole that can be seen today.

The smoke from the open fires contained not only sulfur dioxide but also arsenic, lead, and mercury. The consequences were scary: all vegetation around Falun died, wildlife fleed and fish died. In short, Stora Kopparberget was a major ecological disaster. The mine was finally closed down in 1992, and since 2001 it has been defined as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Today, the mine is open for visitors with guided tours in the underground. (With greatly improved security.)

Now, what has this to do with falukorv and little red cottages? By the way, what is falukorv? Wikipedia defines it like this:

Looks like falukorv but may not be labeled as such.
Looks like falukorv but may not be labeled as such.
Genuine falukorv.
Genuine falukorv.

Falukorv is a large Swedish sausage made of a grated mixture of pork and beef or veal with potato starch flour and mild spices. …
In the EU, restrictions apply to what may be labeled ‘Falukorv’ since 2001.”

In plain language, falukorv is one of the most common dishes found on Swedish tables; sliced and fried, baked with cheese and onions, grilled, chopped and mixed with fried potatoes and herbs,… The size of a typical falukorv is about 1 kg.

The mild flavor allows you to add any spice you like – it’s a versatile base for everyday’s dinner. Falukorv means “sausage from Falun” (sausage translates to “korv” in Swedish). But why is it named after Falun?


The ore quarried at Stora Kopparberget had to be hoisted 1,000 ft to reach ground level: this was accomplished by oxen walking in large treadmills. The oxen were of course exposed to the same hazardous smoke as the workers and had to be killed – i.e. slaughtered ­– ever so often. And the meat was used to make large sausages, that had to be “exported” to other parts of the country… the number of slaughtered oxen and the amounts of produced falukorv were bigger than what could be consumed in the vicinity.

And what about the little red cottages?

A second reason for the time-consuming roasting of the ore (besides getting rid of the sulfur) was to oxidize and thus get rid of the content of iron, which created a cinder of red iron ocher or hematite, called rödmull ( ~ red soil). This was regarded as garbage and was piled up beside the mine. A few hundred years ago, someone noticed that a wooden pole that had been sitting for years in the mound of rödmull showed no sign of rot or decay. This was the start for the production of Falu Röd (Falun’s Red), the paint that soon was on almost every house in the country, since it was cheap and could be mixed on site, boiling rödmull and linseed oil with rye flour and water. (However, since it was rather cheap, people of wealth preferred to paint their houses with more expensive white or yellow…)

The deep red color of Falu Röd is still popular in Sweden and Finland, also imitated in other kinds of modern paint, even if the original still has a large market share. But today you don’t mix it yourself – you buy it in large buckets like any other paint. And it is no longer cheap…

16 thoughts on “Why Buildings Are Red in Sweden and more!”

    • Yes Christer, that’s true – the need for hides to make ropes was the first reason for slaughtering oxen in Falun, even though most oxen probably were slaughtered elsewhere and the hides transported to Falun. But the demand for oxen on-site increased in the last part of the 17th century, when the great inventor and industrialist Christopher Polhem was engaged to “modernize” the works. He constructed large winches to hoist ore and workers up and down; these were connected to large treadmills, in which oxen and horses walked. When slaughtered, the hides were turned into ropes and the meat to falukorv. That’s “två flugor i en smäll” i.e. two flies in one swat. 🙂 Btw, the original recipe for falukorv did, most likely, contain a certain amount of horse meat.

  1. Since the oxen had taken toxins into their bodies and being made into falukorv, didn’t those who ate them got poisoned too ? -__-

    • There were in fact several important uses for an ox in Falun: 1) operating the tread mills, 2) provide hide that could be turned to leather ropes. An ox was initially used for the first reason, and probably rather soon slaughtered for the second reason, before it showed too much weakness. And then, as a third spin-off use, turned into falukorv. I.e. the oxen didn’t die by poisoning, but the meat probably contained enough arsenic, lead, and other pollutants, not to be allowed as food today. So your comment is certainly valid.

  2. Falu red colour was for many, many years much too expensive for the common farmer.

    Painting your house red started when the Crown demanded that the main estate of a nobleman – his seat (“sätesgård”) – must be kept in very good condition, and the manor house preferably be built in stone (people had their privileges – tax exemption – revoked because the estate and/or manor house wasn’t well kept). Many noblemen couldn’t afford a stone house and compromised by painting the house red – the preferred colour since the House of Nobility in Stockholm was in red brick.

    In 1684 it was decided that all officers’ houses must be painted red, both to mark it as a gentleman’s house and because it protected the building. A hundred years later – the end of the 18th century – well-to-do farmers started painting their houses red. In many places this was frowned on since it could denote a farmer “getting ideas above his station”. But by the mid 19th century it was quite common for farmers to paint their houses red. However, not everybody did so – in e.g. the well-preserved farm village of Äskhult in northern Halland, all houses are grey.

    When common farmers started to paint their houses with Falu red paint, those who were better off would have nothing to do with the colour and began painting their houses in light colours, with linseed oil paints. This was quite expensive and in e.g. Bohuslän, a west-coast province, two or three sides of the house were painted with the linseed paint while the side/s towards the sea was painted with the much cheaper red colour (some houses are still painted this way).

    The traditional Swedish red croft with white trim and a Swedish flag by a small lake is only about 100 years old. Crofts (“torp”) weren’t generally painted red until very late in the 19th century, the white trim was added even later and few people had a flag until a magazine (Åhlén & Åkerlund) started giving them away (it was very patriotic and also distributed prints of the Royal family).

    • Thank you for supplementing our knowledge about Falu Rödfärg.

      As you say, up to the 19th century, most houses were grey, not painted at all. There may have been several reasons for this: for one thing, people weren’t aware that paint (other than tar) would protect wood from decay. Paint was considered as eye candy, and a painted farm house would not be considered well kept, just conceited. And, as you say, hard cash was scarce.

      However, people who wanted to display a certain social position started painting their houses red already in the 16th century, mimicking the red brick houses in other parts of Europe. Later, when king Charles XI restructured the Swedish defence 1682, every soldier was given a small homestead (croft) on loan, with the proviso that it should be well kept and maintained. The red ocher paint from Falun helped to protect the houses, and it was way far the cheapest paint you could buy. This reduced the prestige of red ocher paint, and when people, a hundred years later, more commonly began to protect their houses with red paint, it definitely went out of fashion: from there on, the gentry chose more expensive yellow and white paint for their houses.

      Now, the habits of the upper class always trickle down, and if the common farmer couldn’t afford white paint for the entire house, he could at least afford white paint for the corner boards and window sills. 🙂

      Once again, thank you for your knowledgeable contribution.

  3. You forgot to mention that the red color on the Falukorv actually came from the animals meat.
    While working the oxen was given water that came from the mine and was saturated with the red color that they use in Falu Röd. The oxens meat absorbed the color and transferred it to the Falukorv.

    • No, I’ll have to correct you on that; originally, the sausage was gray – all meat turns gray when cooked. The pink color of today’s falukorv – it’s pink inside, only the skin is red – comes from sodium nitrite that’s added to prevent growth of certain bacteria. The use of sodium nitrite in charcuterie for this reason is common in all countries.

  4. There is small diffrences on the red houses, around the windows.
    There are two colors to choose from when you are painting your house, White or dark green. And thats all. No other colors is acceptable.

  5. Thanks to all for the interesting commentaries. My grandparents came from Sweden so I enjoy learning more about the history. I have visited Sweden many times, including the copper mine at Falun.

  6. I was thinking that the red color would make the structure stand out against the white snow in the darkness of winter…was that ever taken into consideration?

    • Maybe – but the main reason was certainly that it preserved the wood from decay… and paint of other colors wasn’t affordable, i.e the alternative was not to paint. But you’re right that it creates a pretty and striking contrast to the snow.

  7. What would be an appropriate color to paint a sprawling farmhouse of today located just south of Smolan, Kansas, USA? Parts of the house were built prior to 1880. All the outbuildings are red with white trim. The current residents are of partly of Scandinavian heritage, even retaining the surname Swenson. Their ancestors originated from Smaland, Sweden, immigrating to Galesburg, Illinois, USA before settling on the homestead south of Smolan, Kansas, USA that now needs to be repainted. 🙂

    • The original, traditional ”Falu rödfärg” has the color code S 5040-Y80R in the Natural Color System (NCS), so that’s what you should look for if you’re about to buy modern (vinyl or acrylic or oil) paint.

      Note that Falu rödfärg is an “earth paint” (sludge), and if the house currently is painted with ”Falu rödfärg”, you’ll probably have to brush the walls to remove the loose red particles from the surface, before applying a modern paint, otherwise it won’t stick. Brushing is not needed if you use authentic Falu rödfärg or the readymade powder mix that you can buy from Daladry https://daladry.se. (Just add water.)

      You can of course cook your own homemade paint as they used to do hundred years ago, substituting “rödmull” with two kinds of iron oxide, adding rye flour, linseed oil, soft soap and water, boiling it half an hour, but… (The original paint was made from “rödmull” (a byproduct from the mine). Rödmull is mostly Iron(II) oxide (ferrous oxide), i.e. FeO, and Iron(II) sulfate (iron vitriol), i.e. FeSO4, and it also contains minor quantities of copper, silicone dioxide, zinc and arsenic.)


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