The Historian: Hex Signs, a fascinating Pennsylvania mystery

The Germans’ love of color and decoration led to their putting designs and color on every surface that stood still, and even some that didn’t. An 1810 watercolor by Lewis Miller of York depicts a scene he witnessed: women holding the barnyard chickens and painting their feathers in bright colors.

Using motifs brought from Europe, the Germans painted and decorated walls and structural members of their houses. They also painted furniture such as wardrobes, dower chests, clocks and chairs. They event painted paper: fraktur, birth and baptism certificates, fly leaves of books and other mementoes.

One decorative pattern was the geometrical design now known as the Pennsylvania Dutch “Hex Sign.” Six, eight, and up to 16 pointed stars, whirling swastikas, rosettes (with and without borders), stars within stars and scalloping were put on everything from furniture to pottery plates to tombstones. There is a six pointed rosette carved directly over the entrance to the New Hanover Lutheran Church built in 1767. The same rosette is on the little tombstone of one of Sebastian Reifschneider’s children. The date is now illegible, but Sebastian, senior, died in 1755.

As farmers became more prosperous in the 19th century, their old log barns were replaced with the large stone and frame Swiss bank barns with which we are familiar. Commercial paint became available, and there is a reference to a barn being painted “in a reddish brown color” as early as 1830. The first dated evidence of hex signs painted on barns is from 1867, but they probably existed decades before that.

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Amish and Mennonites will certainly make hex signs to sell to tourists, but they won’t have them on their barns. They express their ethnicity through other means. Hex signs are mainly on the barns of Lutheran and Reformed farmers.

The question is: “Are geometrical designs applied to [barns] simply pleasing, practical ways of filling up space, or are they (originally or now) symbols of magical and protective powers?” This is the question posed in Hex Signs, a book by professors Don Yoder and Thomas Graves. Both of these scholars have impeccable credentials and lengthy lists of well researched books and articles that they authored over a lifetime of folk culture studies.

They point out that there was a “Scholars’ War” over just this question in Europe in the first part of the 20th century, where these designs are endemic in the folk culture (but not painted on the sides of barns). On one side were those who “...viewed the geometrical patterns on folk objects as ancient symbols of magical and protective power, with deep roots in the pre-Christian religions of Europe’s past. To this school of thought, any circular design was a ‘sun wheel,’ from the prehistoric worship of the life-giving powers of nature. The swastika, an almost universal symbol from Orient to Occident, meant life and good fortune. The four compass points, the four seasons and, again the sun cult, movement of the sun through the seasons.”

An opposing school of thought said that these were simply pleasing geometrical designs springing from a “folk esthetic” that seems to abhor blank spaces. These designs were easy to draw and carve since the curved lines were made with a compass, and the painting was simply filling in spaces.

This same controversy surfaced in Pennsylvania in the 1920s with Wallace Nutting’s book, Pennsylvania Beautiful, which claims: “They are supposed to be a continuance of very ancient traditions, according to which these decorative marks were potent to protect the barn, or more particularly the cattle, from the influence of witches... The hexafoos [hex sign or witch’s foot] was added to its decoration as a kind of spiritual or demoniac lightening-rod.” Wallace Nutting, though, based his whole hex sign thesis on an interview with just one source. Other writers also weighed in with claims that the hex signs had magical protective powers that their painters were interpreting and invoking.

The opposite view was that hex signs had no occult meaning at all but were just decorations. Dr. Alfred L. Shoemaker (b. 1913), along with the late Don Yoder, was one of the premier scholars on Pennsylvania German folk culture. These gentlemen came to the conclusion that hex signs were simply decorative motifs and were “chust for nice.” Shoemaker says that if these motifs were meant as protection from witches they would hardly be carved on churches and tombstones and inscribed on Bibles and baptism certificates, which would not need such protection. Too, barn hex signs appear in a rather narrow band centered across Berks and Lehigh Counties. Also, the whole hex and witch subject was very secretive, and Dr. Shoemaker observes they would not have splashed it on the side of barns for all passersby to gawk at.

Another pioneer researcher of the folk culture in the early 20th century, John Joseph Stoudt, noted that he interviewed more than 165 people 70 years of age or older and not one of them claimed any sort of mystical meaning to hex signs. Some called them tulips or flower-stars. A third view that emerged was that they did have ancient pagan meanings but had nothing to do with witchcraft.

It’s important to note that the very superstitious Germans did believe in hexes and witchcraft and often sought barn protection with amulets such as rolled up Bible verses inserted into holes drilled over barn doors or burying iron crosswise under door sills (This witches did not like to cross). However, these sorts of things have nothing to do with hex signs painted on barns.

The most recent theory proposed by scholars is that the barn paintings are expressions of “ethnic identity.” According to this line of thought, during the late 19th centuries when hex signs began to be painted in numbers, the German communities were under a sort of cultural siege. The state legislated English-only public schools and the world at large were forcing their expressions into the Dutch regions through the advertising and the increasingly prevalent print media of that day. The hex sign on the barn became a kind of “push back” to these forces. It announced to the world that these neat farm buildings were created by Pennsylvania Dutch and they were proud of the buildings and proud of their ethnicity.

So, are hex signs mystical emblems or just decoration? People, I suppose, believe whatever they want to believe. Googling “Pa Dutch Hex Signs” produces 46,800 results. Somewhere in there will be “facts” to support any view.

The Historian is produced by the New Hanover Historical Society. Call Robert Wood at 610-326-4165 with comments.