The landscape of the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside stretches out with rolling hills of fields and forests and is dotted with quaint small towns. Farm buildings stand out among the immense fields with a varying array of sizes and modernity, ranging from “Old Order” Amish and Mennonite farm communities to stand alone traditional, family farms to large, modern agricultural centers. This area of America is known for its horse and buggies, a country way of life, and a strong German heritage. It is a place where children are raised rough and tumble in the creeks (or, “cricks” in the Pennsylvania Dutch accent) and they walk alone to the corner store in the spring sunshine, as the scent of manure wafts through the breeze, an old smelly friend not bothering many of the locals.
Mascot Roller Mills barn in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Photo by Smallbones.
Pennsylvanians have long been proud of their agricultural heritage, but some of these farmers seem to go above and beyond and paint bright, colorful, circular designs on the signs of their barns. These charming designs have a simple elegance to them and boldly draw one’s eye. Barn painting began roughly around the 1830s, but it wasn’t until the 1920s then these designs were typically referred to as “hex signs”. Here is where truth, fancy, and two different Pennsylvania Dutch traditions merged together to create a mythology of their origin and use. Many people believe they are magical charms, meant to thwart evil, witches, and natural disasters. However, there many who claim this to be a bunch of hogwash and they are merely a (relatively late) representation of Dutch artwork that goes back hundreds of years.
Dr. Alfred L. Shoemaker contended in Hex Signs: Illustrated in Natural Color, Their Origins, History, Usage, and Significance that, despite the long-standing belief they are meant as magical protection, they were and are still simply a part of the Pennsylvania Dutch artwork. After conducting his research, he concluded that they are “chust for nice”. One of his points of evidence is that although the barns in this part of Pennsylvania were not painted until the 1830s, the design style goes back for hundreds of years to German, Swiss, and Alsatian folkart – from the same areas where the Pennsylvania Dutch emigrated from. The colors, motifs, and symbols can be found on many Pennsylvania Dutch artifacts such as documents, Conestoga wagons, tombstones, book plates, and toolboxes – long before the term “hex sign” was coined in the 1920s. Traditionally, the Pennsylvania Dutch did not have a term for these barn designs and only called them schtanna (stars) and blumma (flowers). Additionally, he points out that the designs are only painted on the front, public faces of the barn, whereas a magical charm would have been painted on any or all sides of the barn. These lively and colorful designs are often found on documents covered in fraktur script, a highly angular German style of black-letter type.
Dr. Shoemaker presents a very good case that the signs are entirely decorative; however, as with most historical mysteries, that does not seem to be the entire story. In his book Hex and Spellwork: The Magical Practices of the Pennsylvania Dutch¸ Karl Herr goes into great detail about what the symbols and colors represent and their significance to speilwerk or Pow-Wow – a form of Pennsylvania Dutch Christian magic. (Pow-Wow (or powwow) is a word taken from Native American Algonquian, meaning a gathering of medicine men.) In this book, it is claimed that Karl Herr is a pseudonym for a “well-known writer on the subject of magic and spells” and that he is a hexenmeister. A hexenmeister is a master of hexes, a practitioner of this odd and little-known magical practice. Hexes / speilwerk / Pow-wow is practiced among rural Pennsylvania Dutch, but not the “Plain Folk” such as the Amish and Mennonites. A hexenmeister uses prayer, poultices, spoken spells, written magic spells and prayers called himmelsbriefs (“heaven’s letters”), natural remedies, and hex signs to “try” for a cure for a disease or a solution to a problem for their clients. In his book, he describes in detail the meanings behind the symbols and colors, such as red standing for love, passion, and masculinity and the 12-pointed rosette represents the calendar, time, the year, and eternity. Herr concludes that there are two different kinds of hex signs – magical and decorative.
A Pennsylvania artist painting a barn hex sign. Photo from Hex Signs.
Jack Montgomery, in his book American Shamans, also states that there are these two different kinds of hex signs. He writes, “Hex signs as barn decorations did not appear in the Pennysylvania Dutch ares of Pennsylvania in any real numbers until after 1950, according to David Fooks, writing in the Fall 2001 issue of the Pennsylvania German Review. Hex signs were popularized by Johnny Ott and Jacob Zook, two Pennsylvania Dutch artists, whose works can still be purchased in tourist and online stores. Before the 1950s, Hex signs as magical creations were placed on items within the home such as furniture and books.”
Pow-Wow practitioners see their work as being dependent on God and fit their nicely alongside of their Christianity. However, it may not have always been a Christian practice. Historian Lee R. Gandee, who was also a hexenmeister, studied this subject at length and produced a book called Strange Experience: The Secrets of a Hexenmeister. His research led him to believe the practice stemmed back to European pagan and Druidic religions which in turn originally came from India. Gandee created hex signs as part of his practice and believed them to have deep, powerful meanings. In his book, he said, “The uniformly gratifying outcome of these hex prayers has left me with the feeling that while (verbal prayer is adequate for many things, painted prayers are far more certain to accomplish their purpose.”
A decorated barn from Lehigh Valley. Found in the Library of Congress.
A barn with a hex sign in Chester County.
A decorated barn from Montgomery County. Found in the Library of Congress.
A fraktur book cover by Johann Adam Eyer (1755-1837).
A screen print on paper from Folk Art of Rural Pennsylvania, 1939.
The 1853 H. & S. Hoffman barn in Montgomery County. Found in the Library of Congress.
A vintage travel poster from between 1936-1940. Found in the Library of Congress.
Written by April Lynn Downey
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- Herr, Karl. Hex and Spellwork: The Magical Practices of the Pennsylvania Dutch. York Beach, ME: Red Wheel / Weiser, LLC, 2002.
- Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. Decorated Red Barn, State Route 100 vicinity, Pottstown, Montgomery County, PA. Pennsylvania Montgomery County Pottstown, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/pa1513/.
- Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. Decorated Red Barn, U.S. Route 22 vicinity, New Smithville, Lehigh County, PA. Pennsylvania Lehigh County New Smithville Lehigh New Smithfield, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/pa1577/.
- Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. Decorated Red Barn, State Route 309 vicinity, Center Valley, Lehigh County, PA. Pennsylvania Lehigh County Center Valley, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/pa1599/.
- Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. H. & S. Hoffman Barn , Pottstown, Montgomery County, PA. Pennsylvania Montgomery County Pottstown, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/pa1512/.
- Montgomery, Jack. American Shamans. Ithaca, NY: Busca, Inc., 2008.
- Tonelli, Nicholas A. "Pennsylvania German-style barn, Albany Tonships, Berks County." https://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flickr_-_Nicholas_T_-_Hexed_(1).jpg
- Totora, Vincent R. Hex Signs: Illustrated in Natural Color, Their Origins, History, Usage, and Significance. Lancaster, PA: Photo Arts Press, 1971.
- Smallbones. "Mascot Roller Mills Barn." https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mascot_Mills_Barn_w_Hexes_LanCo_PA.JPG