Falu Red: The Story of Why All Swedish Houses Are Red

The roof of the royal castle was painted red with the pigments from the Falun Mine because the Swedish King was unable to afford enough copper.

It was nearing the end of the 13th century and the bishop of Västerås was sitting in his office thinking. He had made a real financial mess of things. To save his finances, he had used the church’s share in Falun Mine as collateral for a loan. But the bishop eventually did the right thing and pulled back the share. A bill of exchange was created to ensure that this does not happen again. The king, the archbishop, and several of the other bishops put their seals on the letter, so important that the mine was finally secured. The letter made it possible to buy shares in the company and thus become a shareholder. The letter established Falu Gruva (Falun Mine) as one of the world’s oldest limited companies: Stora Kopparbergs Bergslags AB.

In Sweden, the color often referred to as "Falu red" has consistently served as a metaphor for pastoral life.
In Sweden, the color often referred to as “Falu red” has consistently served as a metaphor for pastoral life. (Image: Flickr)

The Sweden we know today owes a lot to Falu Gruva. The mine had been yielding copper for over a thousand years when it closed, and for many years, Falu Gruva had been one of Europe’s largest industries. Europe’s best engineers and other experts brought their expertise to Falu Gruva. They made the work more efficient, and their innovations spread to other industries in Sweden. Without the mine, that kind of expertise would have stayed outside the country.

The engineers also created a multicultural workplace through an exchange where knowledge and culture from the rest of Europe were harnessed and improved in the mine and throughout Sweden. For many, many years, Falu Gruva was Sweden’s cash cow, and without it, Sweden would probably never have attained the same prosperity. But from the mine, the Swedish people have also gained something that they still use today. Something that has never ceased to be modern: The Falun Mine gave birth to Falu red, the hue that has come to decorate all of Sweden.

A Desire for More

The trek around the Great Pit in Falun Mine with falu red-colored houses.
There are numerous vistas of the surrounding landscape and the World Heritage Site town of Falun can be seen throughout the trek around the Great Pit in Falun Mine. (Image: Per Eriksson)

The Falu red’s origins may be traced back to some grandiose illusions. The roof of the Swedish King’s castle was intended to be built of copper in 1573, much like the very massive castles in Europe. But King Johan III was unable to acquire copper for the whole structure. Therefore, he decided to paint the roof with pigments from the Falun Mine. At least the pigments had a copper-like appearance. Following that, it became popular to paint portions of or whole buildings Falu red to give the appearance that their residents were wealthy. The color reminded the Swedish nobility of the red walls they had seen while touring Europe but were unable to acquire.

In Sweden, there was a lot of construction in the 17th century, and the expensive Falu red color became popular among the upper class. By then, the King of Sweden was a powerful inspiration for many. The nobles aspired to emulate whatever the king did. Painting one’s walls Falu red was a method to announce one’s social rank, and the aristocrats quickly followed suit.

As time went on, the king gained more followers. To elevate its reputation, the Swedish church started painting the parsonages in Falu red to make them seem as if they were constructed of pricey bricks. The Swedish military didn’t want to play separatist, so as soon as the aristocracy and clergy began painting their residences Falu red, senior officers’ mansions followed the same trend. More and more military structures were painted Falu red throughout time, and eventually, even the Swedish towns took on the color.

falu red houses side by side
In Falun, there is a mountain called the Great Copper Mountain that has a mining district. (Image: UNESCO World Heritage Centre)

In the 18th century, the Falu red was now seen as being exceedingly special and a luxury that only the wealthy could afford in Sweden. A red-painted home was considered to be a prestige symbol. Since the Swedish king visited the towns often, it was customary to always paint the side of the house that faced the street red. Then, the whole main street’s homes were painted red, leaving the alleyways and the walls facing the courtyards unpainted.

However, Falun Mine started producing Falu red industrially around the end of the 18th century, making it feasible to make more of the color. Now the large farmers were painting their homes red. In addition to being eye-catching and fashionable, the Falu red started to gain popularity for its qualities as well. The wood used for the houses (including their roofs) lasted longer when it was painted Falu red. So, both Sweden as a whole and the red paint had a prosperous 18th century.

The Great Emigration and the Single-Family Home Movement

Good harvests, rare wars, and medical advances increased the life expectancy among Swedes. But some time into the 19th century, Sweden began to face some issues. More and more children were surviving to adulthood, and more people would have to share the land that belonged to the family. The land was simply not enough, so many people had to live without their own land.

Sweden was divided by the migration crisis
Sweden was divided by the migration crisis, but it emerged as a stronger nation. (Image credit:

For these, the alternative was either to become agricultural laborers or to move to the cities and their growing industries. Life as a peasant was low-paid, with long hours and often a very poor standard of living. While industrial wages were higher than those in agriculture, the crowded conditions, dirt, and disease provided an even worse living environment for many Swedish workers.

The difficulties of establishing a home and farm, the poor standard of living for workers, the economic downturn, and the years of emergency in the 1860s, helped boost emigration. The United States offered the prospect of a home on land, jobs, and a higher standard of living. The Swedes were not slow to take the bait. In total, around one million Swedes emigrated to the United States, which was one-fifth of Sweden’s population. To achieve the same population reduction today, around two million Swedes would have to leave Sweden.

The government wanted to keep the Swedish population in Sweden so that the workforce necessary for the country’s economic development would not migrate to North America. The government was afraid that Sweden would completely lose its young population through emigration, and without young people, the country had no future. At the beginning of the 20th century, an inquiry was launched to find out what could be done to encourage Swedes to stay in their homeland. One of the proposals made by the inquiry was to provide better housing for the population.

The aim was to build out the housing shortage. Said and done, the Swedish single-family home movement was launched. As it goes without saying, a true Swedish home was in the countryside, not in the city. Because cities were both crowded and filthy, people gradually preferred houses in the countryside.

This owner-occupier movement is also the origin of many of the Falu red houses we see around Sweden today. By this time, the Falun red or Falu red had become a symbol of national romanticism, which celebrated the homeland and rural life of the red farms. So when new Swedish homes began to be built, Falu red was the obvious choice for painting a house. Sweden had suffered a bit of an identity crisis at the beginning of the 20th century because so many Swedes had left the country and the Swedish-Norwegian Union had just dissolved. Therefore, red was the ideal color for reshaping the nation’s image. 

After all, it was coming from Swedish soil, and the industry at Falun Mine had helped make Sweden so successful during the “Era of Great Power.” In red, Swedish people found both the memories of the country’s prosperous times and the safe and peaceful feeling that it had lacked during the years of emigration. The red color thus became not only a symbol of the freedom of owning a home but also a symbol of the whole nation. For Swedes, the Falu red could almost be said to be as valuable as the Swedish flag.

A Red Color for Sweden

Today, Swedish people look at their red cottages with love and a strong sense of freedom. It doesn’t matter what the building itself looks like, big or small, it’s the red color they recognize and love. Today in Sweden, the Falu red can be seen on everything from old mansions to outbuildings and modern villas. There are red-painted heritage buildings and the odd new office blocks.

The Falu red has made a journey from being an exclusionary commodity that few could afford to a democratic, inclusive color today, several centuries later. It makes little difference what kind of job or lifestyle a Swedish person chooses to have because the red color knows no class boundaries. Many people in Sweden have a relationship with some form of a red building.


  1. Margareta Kjellin; Nina Ericson, 1999. Genuine Falun Red. Stockholm: Prisma. ISBN 91-518-4371-4.
  2. Sven Rydberg, 1979. Stora Kopparberg – 1000 years of an industrial activity. Gullers International AB. ISBN 91-85228-52-4.
  3. Tommy Forss, 1990. The Falun Mine. Falun: Copper Mine Museum.
  4. Mining Area of the Great Copper Mountain in Falun – UNESCO World Heritage Centre
  5. Eli Filip Heckscher, 1954. An economic history of Sweden, Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-22800-6.

By Hrothsige Frithowulf

Hrothsige works at Malevus as a history writer. His areas of historical interest include the ancient world and early Europe, as well as the history of modern culture.