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Hex signs are a form of Pennsylvania Dutch folk art, related to fraktur, found in the Fancy Dutch tradition in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Barn paintings, usually in the form of "stars in circles," grew out of the fraktur and folk art traditions about 1850 when barns first started to be painted in the area. By the 1940s commercialized hex signs, aimed at the tourist market, became popular and these often include stars, compass roses, stylized birds known as distelfinks, hearts, tulips, or a tree of life. Two schools of thought exist on the meaning of hex signs. One school ascribes a talismanic nature to the signs, the other sees them as purely decorative, or "Chust for nice" in the local dialect. Both schools recognize that there are sometimes superstitions associated with certain hex sign themes, and neither ascribes strong magical power to them. The Amish do not use hex signs.
Painted octagon or hexagon barn stars are a common sight on Pennsylvania Dutch barns in central and eastern Pennsylvania, especially in Berks County, Lancaster County and Lehigh County. However, the modern decoration of barns is a late development in Pennsylvania Dutch folk art. Prior to the 1830s, the cost of paint meant that most barns were unpainted. As paint became affordable, the Pennsylvania Dutch began to decorate their barns much like they decorated items in their homes. Barn decorating reached its peak in the early 20th century, at which time there were many artists who specialized in barn decorating. Drawn from a large repertoire of designs barn painters combined many elements in their decorations. The geometric patterns of quilts can be seen in the patterns of many hex signs. Hearts and tulips seen on barns are commonly found on elaborately lettered and decorated birth, baptism and marriage certificates known as fraktur.
Throughout the 20th century, hex signs were often produced as commodities for the tourist industry in Pennsylvania. These signs could be bought and then mounted onto barns and used as household decorations. Jacob Zook of Paradise, Pennsylvania claimed to have originated the modern mountable sign in 1942, based on traditional designs, to be sold in souvenir gift shops to tourists along the Lincoln Highway. Johnny Ott and Eric and Johnny Claypoole are also considered to have contributed to this hex sign revival or adaptation. Modern artists may stress the symbolic meanings, for example, a horse head is used to protect animals from disease and the building from lightning, and a dove represents peace and contentment. An unusual use is the official logo of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Radiation Protection, which incorporates the international symbol for radiation into its yellow-and-red adaptation of a traditional hex sign design.
There are two opposing schools of belief regarding the derivation of the name. The term hex with occult connotations may derive from the Pennsylvanian German word "hex" (German "Hexe", Dutch "Heks"), meaning "witch." However the term "hex sign" was not used until the 20th Century, after 1924 when Wallace Nutting's book Pennsylvania Beautiful was published. Nutting, who was not a Pennsylvania native, interviewed farmers about their distinctive barn decoration. Before this time there was no standardized term and many Pennsylvania German farmers simply called the signs "blumme" or "schtanne" (meaning flowers or stars). However one farmer used the term "Hexefoos" in his description. The term became popular with Pennsylvania Germans themselves during the blossoming tourist trade of Southeastern Pennsylvania.
In recent years, hex signs have come to be used by non-Pennsylvania Dutch persons as talismans for folk magic rather than as items of decoration. Some believe that both the Pennsylvania German barn design and hex designs originate with the Alpine Germans. They note that hexes are of pre-Christian Germanic origin; for instance, the most basic hex motif, the rossette, is called the Sun of the Alps in Padania (Po Valley). Based on this history, neo-pagans or Germanic heathens have taken up the practice of creating hex signs, incorporating other pre-Christian signs and symbols into the hex work. Gandee, in his book Strange Experience, Autobiography of a Hexenmeister, described hex signs as "painted prayers".
Some view the designs as decorative symbols of ethnic identification, possibly originating in reaction to 19th century attempts made by the government to suppress the Pennsylvania German language. Anabaptist sects (like the Amish and Mennonites) in the region have a negative view of hex signs. It is not surprising that hex signs are rarely, and perhaps never, seen on an Amish or Mennonite household or farm. John Joseph Stoudt, a folk art scholar, challenges the view that hex signs, as a part of Pennsylvania Dutch culture, have had any magical significance.
Barn with a hex signs in Oley Township, Berks County, Pennsylvania in 1941
A simple hex sign in the form of a compass rose on a suburban shed
The Lancaster Barnstormers professional baseball team unveiled this alternate "hex sign" logo in 2011