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Pennsylvania Dutch Hex Signs

Updated on May 13, 2013
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Who are the Pennsylvania Dutch?

About 300 years ago groups of peasant farmers, primarily from the Rhine region of Germany, migrated to southeastern Pennsylvania. These settlers came to take advantage of the religious freedom being offered by William Penn and came to be known as the Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutch being the word for German). It would be more accurate to refer to them as the Pennsylvania Germans.

They were not a culturally homogenous group, but rather a mixture of Germans, Swiss and other German dialect-speaking Europeans. More importantly, they exchanged cultural practices with their Quaker and Scotch-Irish neighbors and, for the most part, have integrated into the culture at large.

Religiously they were members of Protestant sects that grew out of the Anabaptist movement of c.1525. The Anabaptist response to church abuses was the rebaptizing of adult church members. The rebaptizing met with fierce resistance and persecution by Protestants, Catholic and civil authorities. Protestant and Catholics abhorred it because they saw it as a threat to church membership and sanctity of the marriage vows. The civil authorities could not permit it because baptism played a part in citizenship. The resulting persecution served to strengthen the resolve of the Anabaptists and caused them to migrate. Eventually they came to the United States.

The sects involved in the Anabaptist movement were the Amish, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and Schwenfelders. Other sects included in the Pennsylvania Dutch are the Reformed Church, Lutheran, Episcopalians, Quakers, Moravians, and Methodists.

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Origin of Hex Signs

Origin of Hex Signs

The use of stars and circles in art and decoration goes back thousands of years. Actually, Lutherans who came to Pennsylvania at the invitation of William Penn introduced these artistic signs to the area. These early Pennsylvania German settlers placed these "folk art" designs of rosettes, stars, circles, and the "Tree of Life" with their connection to the sun, nature, and the celestial, on everything from tombstones and birth certificates, to plates, furniture, textiles, and so forth. Since these designs were also placed on buildings, especially barns, an application that was relatively rare, the idea of the hex sign was born. However, although hex signs began appearing on barns in the first half of the 19th century it wasn’t until 1924 when Wallace Nutting was the first to refer to these motifs as a "hexafoos" or "witch foot" in his book Pennsylvania Beautiful.

Even though the Pennsylvania Dutch can be said to be a bit more superstitious than many, the use of hex signs was confined to a fairly limited area. Often credited to the Amish, in actuality the Amish as well as the Mennonites never seemed to use them. They were probably too decorative and colorful for their plain way of life.

The use of the name “hex” is very much in dispute and there are two schools of thought on the matter. The more exciting one is that it is derived from the German hexe which means “witch.” That would indicate the designs were used for magical purposes. This is the version that was picked up by the tourist industry and put forward from the mid-1930s onward in advertising. In actuality the different sects of the Pennsylvania Dutch were most likely too devout in their religion to display anything with magical connotations or that would subscribe to witchcraft. The alternate version is that “hex” is short for hexagram; this version is based on the fact that the earliest designs were indeed six-sided. This version has a second part where the word “hex” is actually an English corruption of the German word for six, sechs.

Recently a more accepted version of the hex sign is that the Pennsylvania Dutch used them as an indicator of ethnic identity, ethnic pride, and, simply put, the pure joy of colorful decoration. There are those who believe that the increased use and public display of these signs over the years is an indication of the Pennsylvania Dutch resistance to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s efforts to eradicate their distinctive culture by using the school system to stamp out the German language.

For whatever the reason, the earliest documented hex signs on barns date back to the later half of the 19th century, perhaps because barns weren’t generally painted at all much before 1830 due to the cost of paint. But it wasn’t until around 1940 that painters started making hex signs that could be purchased and mounted on barns and other buildings. Visitors to the area wondered what these colorful decorations meant. They soon started to appear on tourist literature and on products made in the area, becoming an easy way to "identify" the food or product as coming from the Pennsylvania Dutch region.

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Hex Sign Industry

The painting of hex signs on barns reached its height in the early 20th century, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that it became an industry. In 1942, intrigued by some hex signs obtained from a salesman, Jacob Zook of Paradise, PA started creating them. Zook learned the art and the lore associated with the signs and soon he had a local and ultimately a national following. Zook learned the process of silk screening and soon he was producing signs with vivid colors and designs on boards that could be mounted. Today, hex signs can be found around the world and Zook’s company is still in his family.

Hex Sign Meaning

There are no hard and fast meanings to the designs on hex signs. It’s folk art, it’s fun, it’s designed to look nice. However, there are some general meanings designers seem to stick with…

Sun wheel for warmth and fertility.

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Hearts for love.

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Birds (called distelfinks) for good luck and happiness.

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Tulips for faith.

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Stars for luck.

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…and any other design you can come up with. The specific colors used also have meaning: red for your emotions, yellow for love of man and the sun, green for growing things, blue for protection, white for purity, and brown for Mother Earth.

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    • mactavers profile image

      mactavers 4 years ago

      Great Hub and some beautiful examples of Hex signs