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‘Hex’ Signs: Searching for the Magic

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 32.6, November / December 2008

My introduction to Pennsylvania Dutch “hex” signs came when, as a teenager running my own eastern-Kentucky sign-painting business, I was commissioned to make a pair of the circular emblems. They were for a home that featured Pennsylvania Dutch decor. Far removed as we were from the authentic source of the signs, I copied from a book “traditional” designs that supposedly had magical properties. I was unaware then how nearly everything that has been written about the popular folk creations has been challenged.

Over the years, I have collected examples of the art, together with many books and articles on the topic. In January 2007, my wife and I went on a self-guided driving tour of the Berks County, Pennsylvania, countryside, studying and photographing hex-sign-emblazoned barns (figures 1 and 2), even lunching on Pennsylvania Dutch fare at a homey village inn. I also later sought out information on the signs’ reputed cultural antecedents on a trip to Germany the following May. Here is my attempt to bring some clarity to a most controversial subject.

Controversy

Circular designs painted on southeastern Pennsylvania barns have a murky history. One claim is that they were originally “fire signs.” That is, they gave notice that the owner’s property was covered by an insurance company (Smith 1993, 2). Reportedly, prior to 1800 the Insurance Company of North America used a six-pointed star as its fire mark, and another company, the Sun Fire Office, required insurees to mount on their property its Sun-Mark (Lerch 1949). But this hardly seems a convincing theory of the designs’ origin in light of other information.

Another source, in attributing designs to the “Mennonites, or Amish (or Pennsylvania Dutch. . .)” (Lehner 1957, 26–27), confuses matters. While the signs are indeed products of the Pennsylvania “Dutch”—a corruption of Deutsch or “German”—such colorful decorations were avoided by the Mennonites (an offshoot of the Anabaptists) and especially by the Amish (members of a Mennonite sect founded by Jacob Ammann in the seventeenth century)—both groups being noted for their “plain” living.1 Most of the colorful folk arts and crafts were produced by the “fancy” or “church” Dutch—that is, those of the Reformed and Lutheran heritage (Wentz 1993, 21; Mauer 1996, 5). (I interviewed several Amish in New York about this issue and discovered that most knew nothing about hex signs [Nickell 2003].)

It is important to recognize that the Pennsylvania Dutch were not a culturally homogenous group. They were an admixture of Germans and Swiss, together with some German-speaking Alsatians and Lorrainers—their ancestors were mostly German dialect-speaking colonial immigrants. Moreover, they exchanged cultural practices with their Quaker and Scotch-Irish neighbors (Yoder 1971).


Figure 2: The author photographing a barn emblazoned with “hex signs” in the Berks County, Pennsylvania countryside. (Photo by Diana Harris)

Research for my book Pen, Ink and Evidence, showed that pictoral elements similar to some that appear as barn signs were found elsewhere in Pennsylvania Dutch creations, including their documents. Called fracturs (after the “fractured”-looking, old-German gothic lettering), these were hand-drawn certificates of birth, baptism, and marriage, embellished with colorful designs. They consisted of birds, hearts, flowers, and other motifs, including geometrical forms (Nickell 1990, 126–127, 152; Lichten 1993, 246–249). But was their purpose purely decorative, or did they serve some other function, with hearts invoking love, six-pointed rosettes good luck, and “distelfinks” (goldfinches) happiness, as is often reported (Mauer 1996; Legendary 1999, 5–15)?

In Search of “Hex” Signs

The derivation of the name “hex” signs is much disputed. One school of thought holds that the earliest ones were six-sided geometric designs, and thus hex was short for hexagram, from the Greek hex-, meaning “six” (“Hex sign” 2007), or it was an English corruption of the German word for “six,” sechs (“Hex Signs” 2007). Others argue that the word hex is from the German Hexe, “witch,” and indicates that the designs were used for magical protection (“Hex sign” 2007).

Scholar Alfred L. Shoemaker (1971, 2) reports finding “the identical geometrical designs as in Pennsylvania in German, Swiss and Alsatian folk art.” Shoemaker insists the designs are purely decorative and therefore refers to the “hex” concept as “myth.” Folklorist Richard M. Dorson (1972, 274) agrees, labeling the notion a bit of “urban apocrypha.” But were the European designs used only as decorations?

I turned my focus to Germany. Although I did not see the designs on barns in Bavaria during my travels there in 2002 and 2007, on the latter trip I did discuss the question of hex signs with folklorist Stephan Bachter. He said that today’s Pennsylvania designs appear to him to be decorative folk-art creations. However, it is difficult to know, he cautioned, to what extent people might be genuinely thinking magically—making magic part of their reality—as opposed to simply following some traditional practice. He observed that there were superstitious customs among rural Germans that focused on their barns, including painting pentagrams on the buildings. There were also other such magical practices as placing a broom upside down beside the barn door to keep witches at bay. In addition, certain spells might be written on paper and placed at specific hidden places in a barn, such as under the roof. Bachter even took me with him to the archives at Schloss Darmstadt (Darmstadt Castle)2 where we were permitted to examine rare German charm books from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These contained various spells and magical designs, including pentagrams (Bachter 2007).

Origin of Barn Signs

The modern concept of Pennsylvania barn designs as “hex” signs can be traced to 1924, when Wallace Nutting, in his book Pennsylvania Beautiful, stated: “The ornaments on barns found in Pennsylvania . . . go by the local name of hexafoos or witch foot. . . . They are supposed to be a continuance of very ancient tradition, according to which these decorative marks were potent to protect the barn, or more particularly the cattle, from the influence of witches. . . . The hexafoos was added to its decoration as a kind of spiritual or demoniac lightning-rod!” (qtd. in Farrell 1971). Nutting reportedly got his information from one man who convinced him of the antiquity of the practice (Farrell 1971).

However, it seems that Pennsylvania Dutch barns were rarely painted before the 1830s due to the cost of paint (Shoemaker 1971, 4; “Hex sign” 2007). So, distinguished from earlier folk-art motiffs, “hex” signs developed after that time, the earliest one reported in 1850 (having been painted on a barn in Lehigh County, near Chestnut Hill [Smith 1960, 13]). Subsequently, “Barn decoration reached its peak in the early twentieth century, at which time there were many artists who specialized in barn decorating” (Hex sign 2007). One old barn painter, Harry Adams, who painted barns in Berks and nearby counties, stated that he had never been asked to paint special designs for protection or good luck, adding that “I simply make them up as I go along. . . .” Adams acknowledged that while the designs were frequently attributed to witchcraft or other superstitious belief, during all the time he had created them they never had any such actual significance (Smith 1965, 21).

According to Johnnie Brendel, whose grandfather painted “hex signs,” the local Pennsylvania Dutch themselves refer to the designs as “barn stars” or “barn flowers.” While a particular design might be considered rather vaguely to represent good luck, the real reason it is painted on a barn is to beautify it (Dorson 1972, 275–276).

Most of today’s “symbolic” hex signs are copied from traditional folk designs but are usually produced in quantity for the tourist trade or silk screened on discs of pressed wood for later mounting. Referring to these modern artists—some of whom call themselves hexenmeisters (i.e., “hexmasters” or “sorcerers” [Gandee 1971; Herr 2002]), one experienced painter remarked, “I doubt if some of those self-styled ‘hex’ sign painters have ever actually raised a ladder against a barn, let alone paint[ed] one” (qtd. in Smith 1965, 23).

The real hex-signmen are barn painters who first outline the circles on the bare wood planking and fill them in with white paint. Next, using “barn red” paint (originally made with an iron-oxide pigment known as Venetian red [Wendt 1993, 250]), they paint around the circles and then complete the painting of the barn. Finally, they finish the circular decorations by drawing and painting the designs in brilliant colors (Smith 1965, 21–23). For this work, a painter may place extension ladders on both sides of the circle and, using a large iron bracket affixed to each, secure a plank on which to stand or sit (Pennsylvania 1971, 3).

Conclusions

The Pennsylvania Deutsch have decorated their barns since the 1830s, and hex signs have been painted since 1850. They may have evolved from the practice of painting birds, flowers, and various geometric designs on other folk-art creations, but it appears that any magical or symbolic meaning was effectively lost as the designs became largely or entirely produced as decorations. The modern silk-screened “hex” signs sold to tourists are less a product of folklore than what has rightly been dubbed “fakelore” (Wentz 1994, 12; Dorson 1959, 4).

Notes

  1. An exception—a star design on a Mennonite barn in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (Smith 1965, 37)—proves the rule.
  2. This was at the Technìche Universität Darmstadt where we were generously assisted by Dr. Silvia Uhlemann, manuscripts’ librarian.

References

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.