Essays

Pennsylvania: Hex Signs — European Folk Art

by Steven L. Akins

HEX SIGNS are a form of Pennsylvania Dutch folk art, related to fraktur, found in the Fancy Dutch tradition (as opposed to the Amish plain tradition) in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Painted barn motifs, usually in the form of “stars in circles,” began to appear on the central and southeastern Pennsylvania landscape in the early 19th century, and became widespread decades later when commercial ready-mixed paint became readily available.

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.

There are two opposing schools of belief regarding the derivation of the name. The term hex with occult connotations may derive from the Pennsylvanian German word “hex” (German “Hexe”, Dutch “Heks”), meaning “witch.” However the term “hex sign” was not used until the 20th Century, after 1924 when Wallace Nutting’s book Pennsylvania Beautiful was published. Nutting, who was not a Pennsylvania native, interviewed farmers about their distinctive barn decoration. Before this time there was no standardized term and many Pennsylvania German farmers simply called the signs “blumme” or “sterne” (meaning flowers or stars). However one farmer used the term “Hexefoos” in his description. [Some suggest that the original purpose of the signs was more than decorative; they were intended to ward off evil. Looking at eastern and central Pennsylvania today, especially since the Dominican invasion, we may question their efficacy. — Ed.]

Some believe that both the Pennsylvania German barn design and hex designs originate with the Alpine Germans. They note that hexes are of pre-Christian Germanic origin; for instance, a circled rosette is called the Sun of the Alps in Padania (Po Valley). Anabaptist sects (like the Amish and Mennonites) in the region have a negative view of hex signs and they are rarely, perhaps never, seen on an Amish or Mennonite household or farm.

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Source: Steven L. Akins

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