Pennsylvania Dutch Hex Signs
Signs are a form of Pennsylvania Dutch folk
art, related to fraktur, found in the Fancy Dutch tradition in
Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Barn paintings, usually in the form
of "stars in circles," grew out of the fraktur and folk art
traditions about 1850 when barns first started to be painted in
By the 1940s commercialized hex signs, aimed at the tourist
market, became popular and these often include stars, compass
roses, stylized birds known as distelfinks, hearts, tulips, or a
tree of life. Two schools of thought exist on the meaning of hex
One school ascribes a talismanic nature to the signs, the
other sees them as purely decorative, or "Chust for nice" in the
local dialect. Both schools recognize that there are sometimes
superstitions associated with certain hex sign themes, and
neither ascribes strong magical power to them. The Amish
do not use hex signs.
Form and use
Painted octagonal or
hexagonal star-like patterns are a common sight on Pennsylvania
Dutch barns in central and eastern Pennsylvania, especially in
Berks County, Lancaster County and Lehigh County. However, the
modern decoration of barns is a late development in Pennsylvania
Dutch folk art. Prior to the 1830s, the cost of paint meant that
most barns were unpainted.
As paint became affordable, the Pennsylvania Dutch began to
decorate their barns much like they decorated items in their
homes. Barn decorating reached its peak in the early 20th
century, at which time there were many artists who specialized
in barn decorating. Drawn from a large repertoire of designs
barn painters combined many elements in their decorations. The
geometric patterns of quilts can easily be seen in the patterns
of many hex signs. Hearts and tulips seen on barns are commonly
found on elaborately lettered and decorated birth, baptism and
marriage certificates known as fraktur.
Throughout the 20th century, hex signs were often produced as
commodities for the tourist industry in Pennsylvania. These
signs could be bought and then mounted onto barns and used as
household decorations. Jacob Zook of Paradise, Pennsylvania
claimed to have originated the modern mountable sign in 1942,
based on traditional designs, to be sold in souvenir gift shops
to tourists along the Lincoln Highway.
Johnny Ott and Eric and Johnny Claypoole are also considered
to have contributed to this hex sign revival or adaptation.
Modern artists may stress the symbolic meanings, for example, a
horse head is used to protect animals from disease and the
building from lightning, and a dove represents peace and
There are two opposing
schools of belief regarding the derivation of the name. Those
who support the occult nature of the signs assert that the term
hex derives from the Pennsylvanian German word "hex" (German "Hexe",
Dutch "Heks"), meaning "witch".
By contrast, supporters of the folk-art theory point out that
the most popular hex signs were brightly colored geometric
designs that were six-sided, or hexagrams, from the Greek root
hex- meaning "six". It has also been suggested that the German "sechs"
(six) was transformed into "hex".
In recent years, hex signs have come to be used by
non-Pennsylvania Dutch persons as talismans for folk magic
rather than as items of decoration. Some view the designs as
decorative symbols of ethnic identification, possibly
originating in reaction to 19th century attempts made by the
government to suppress the Pennsylvania German language.
Anabaptist sects (like the Amish and Mennonites) in the region
have a negative view of hex signs.
It is not surprising that hex signs are rarely, and perhaps
never, seen on an Amish or Mennonite household or farm. John
Joseph Stoudt, a folk art scholar, challenges the view that hex
signs, as a part of Pennsylvania Dutch culture, have had any