Demystifying Hex Signs, the Colorful Soul of Pennsylvania Dutch Decor

By Mariella Savidge
The Morning Call
Saturday, August 9, 2008

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- The Pennsylvania Dutch influence on the Lehigh Valley shines through in any number of ways: the food, the festivals, the language.

And at the culture's very soul are hex signs -- the brightly colored circles that are most authentic when painted on barns but also are popular on decorative wooden circles.

Eastern Berks and western Lehigh counties are the epicenter of the indigenous folk art form. Although few are in Lancaster County, known for its Amish culture, they are exclusive to the non-Amish Pennsylvania Dutch even there, according to Don Yoder, co-author of "Hex Signs: Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Symbols & Their Meaning" (Stackpole Books, second edition 2000).

The Amish and Mennonites are two smaller groups included in the much larger category of European immigrants called Pennsylvania Dutch. The term "Dutch" once covered people who were German or Dutch. Because of their somber dress, the Amish and Mennonites are sometimes called the "plain" Dutch. The "fancy" Dutch are mostly Lutheran and Reformed Church members.

Amish barns typically are white and trimmed with green. They display no "fancy" decoration, said Patrick J. Donmoyer, a student at Kutztown University majoring in art and minoring in Pennsylvania German Studies. His honors project this summer involves cataloguing all the barns with hex signs in Berks County.

Pennsylvania Dutch barns are usually red, owing to the low price and easy availability of the pigment just after the Civil War, said artist Eric Claypoole, who learned to paint hex signs by watching his father.

Each symbol has a meaning, Claypoole said: Hearts stand for romance and love of mankind; distlefinks -- stylized goldfinches -- signify abundance (but with eyes looking backward, toward Germany). Snakes symbolize temptation. The Pennsylvania Dutch decorated everything with these symbols -- furniture, birth certificates, even Bibles, he said.

The concept of using the symbols for good luck or to ward off evil was publicly introduced in Wallace Nutting's 1924 book, "Pennsylvania Beautiful," in which he called the designs "hexafoos," or witch's foot. He coined the "hex sign" moniker for the images, which had previously been known simply as "schtanne and blumme," or stars and flowers.

Claypoole smiles when asked if he attaches any meaning other than decoration to his work, probably the same smile generations of farmers gave before they answered, "Yuscht fer schee" -- just for nice, the answer he always gives.

Yoder plays down the mystical properties of hex signs. He does, however, acknowledge that the designs were used on the underside of furniture, the backs of mirrors, and on paper rolled into scrolls that homeowners inserted into holes drilled into door frames and window lintels with the hope that they would protect their houses.

On barns, farmers were using hex signs simply to show "that they cared about the aesthetics of the landscape," he said.

Donmoyer lectures on hex signs and continues to dig deep into their history.

Some of the symbols, he said, date to Norse, and even pagan, art. And it is no coincidence that the hub of hex sign activity is in Pennsylvania rather than, say, New York or New Jersey. "There was freedom of religion in Pennsylvania," he said. "People were afraid of so many things. Even 'witches' were protected here."

The argument that hex signs couldn't have mystical meanings because they're so public and out there for the world to see is misleading, Donmoyer said.

While many can be seen from main roads, many are painted on the other side of the barn, which could be seen only by the family, he said.

Protecting a barn -- the center of a farmer's life and livelihood -- from witches may or may not be whimsical. And there are other tragedies that could befall a farm -- theft, fire, disease.

"Witches were not the only reason to protect a barn," he said.

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