Exploring the countryside and the farms dotting the Pennsylvania landscape may reveal some surprising artwork. Many barns and outbuildings on farms feature a hex sign hanging prominently on display. Hex signs typically have bright colors and engaging designs, adding a pleasing visual display to farm buildings. The origin of hex signs is an engaging story that includes elements of symbolism, superstition, and even some traces of dark magic.
The Pennsylvania Dutch settlers came to America during the 17th and 18th centuries, primarily from Germany. These immigrants settled in Pennsylvania seeking religious freedom and a new beginning in a new world. The Pennsylvania Dutch included both common and more worldly farmers of varying religious denominations. Barns were an important part of most Pennsylvania Dutch families’ lives, so it was natural for people to decorate them. Some of the more worldly farmers continued their custom of adding colorful six-pointed stars to their barns.
The Pennsylvania Dutch enjoyed incorporating folk art throughout their homes and farms. Folk art incorporated a strong connection between the Pennsylvania Dutch people and the nature around them. They often added folk art designs to birth certificates, marriage certificates, utensils, plates, furniture, and even tombstones. These farmers also painted designs on doors and walls in their homes. Even the fonts used in folk art carried significance.
Originally, the Pennsylvania Dutch painted barn stars directly onto the siding of their barns. Gradually, this changed to the practice of painting the six-pointed stars onto large wooden discs and then mounting them onto barns. These wooden signs became known as hex signs. The name “hex” may have originated from the German word for six, which is “sechs.” The hex sign name could have also come from the German word “hexafoo,” which means “witch’s foot.”
The combination of folk magic and symbolism has a strong influence on hex signs. Circles and stars are predominant geometric designs, symbolizing divinity and the circle of life. The Pennsylvania Dutch often incorporated these designs in their folk art, including hex signs. The circular shape of the wooden disc encloses the entire hex sign in a circle. Controversy exists among the Pennsylvania Dutch sects regarding hex signs, too. The more conservative Amish and Mennonite groups reject hex signs, believing that they represent pagan superstition.
As paint became less expensive, that opened the door to more farmers incorporating hex signs into their farm décor. The Pennsylvania Dutch may have mounted hex signs on barns for their purported magical properties. Some believed that hex signs provided protection, fertility for livestock, the right balance of sun and rain, and success with crops. Hex signs could feature a variety of symbols, including birds and flowers. Pomegranates symbolized fertility, eagles stood for strength, hearts symbolized love, birds symbolized luck and happiness, stars brought good luck, and tulips symbolized faith. Oak leaves and acorns brought strength, and rosettes on a hex sign could protect a farm from famine. The colors featured in hex signs also carried important symbolism. Blue added protection, green provided abundance, white symbolized purity, and red stood for strong emotion. Traditionally, stars had six points, but there was variation here, too. A four- or five-pointed star could bring good luck, and an eight-pointed star could provide abundance. A sixteen-pointed star was sure to bring prosperity to a farm.
Although hex signs can feature virtually any design, there are some common ones. A “welcome” hex sign often features a large red heart in the center with tulips encircling the heart. The tree of life hex sign usually includes a large tree as the focal point of the sign. Additional features may include stars, hearts, and tulips, either on the leaves or circling around the tree. A home hex sign might feature birds, a star, and leaves to symbolize good luck.
Some farmers mounted hex signs for healing. Others believed in the hex signs’ power to bring abundance and material goods. Some farmers believed hex signs could start or stop the rain. Hex signs might also have been used to protect barns from lightning and to protect the animal occupants within. Some Pennsylvania Dutch farmers may have believed in the power of hex signs to ward off witches and their frightening influence.
Explore more history and background of barn hex signs by visiting these resources:
- The Pennsylvania German Hex Sign
- For the Pennsylvania Dutch, A Long Tradition Fades
- Material Culture and American Folklore
- The Preservation of Historic Farm Buildings
- Pennsylvania Dutch Hex Signs
- Escapes: Hunting for Hex Signs in Pennsylvania Dutch Country