Wednesday, July 16, 2008

At the heart of a Folk Art --

Mariella Savidge of The Morning Call writes of Pennsylvania Dutch Hex Signs, and points to Lehigh and Berks counties as being "at epicenter of hex sign culture". At the heart of a Folk Art -- [Broken link -- update below for text of story] An interview subject--Patrick Donmoyer, a student at Kutztown University--seems to hedge around the question of the art's pagan origins. Still, it's a pretty good read and a great intro for people who appreciate the art but have not delved too deeply into its meaning or history. More stuff:

Update: October 16, 2008 -- This story is no longer present in the Morning Call's archive, but the multimedia tour is still available. Full text of original story posted below...

At the heart of a Folk Art 
Lehigh, Berks counties are at epicenter of hex sign culture 

By Mariella Savidge | Of The Morning Call 
July 15, 2008 

The Pennsylvania Dutch influence on the Lehigh Valley shines through in any number of ways: the food, the festivals, the language. A part of the culture's very soul, however, are hex signs -- the brightly colored circles that are most authentic when painted on barns but also are very popular on decorative wooden discs. Few people realize that eastern Berks and western Lehigh counties are the epicenter of the indigenous folk art form. Though there are a few in Lancaster County, they are exclusive to the Pennsylvania Dutch even there, and have nothing to do with Amish culture, says Don Yoder, co-author with Thomas E. Graves of ''Hex Signs: Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Symbols & Their Meaning'' (Stackpole Books, second edition 2000). 

"Hex signs and Amish don't mix,'' he says. The Amish and Mennonites are two distinct, smaller groups included in the much larger category of European immigrants called the Pennsylvania Dutch, or Pennsylvania German. The term ''Dutch'' once covered people who were German or Dutch. Because of their somber dress, the Amish and Mennonites are sometimes called the ''plain'' Dutch. The ''fancy'' Dutch are mostly Lutheran and Reformed Church members. Amish barns typically are white and trimmed with green. They display no ''fancy'' decoration whatsoever, says Patrick J. Donmoyer, a student at Kutztown University majoring in art and minoring in Pennsylvania German Studies. His honors project this summer involves cataloging all the barns with hex signs in Berks County. 

Pennsylvania Dutch barns usually are red, owing to the low price and easy availability of the pigment just after the Civil War, says artist Eric Claypoole, who learned to paint hex signs by watching his father in the family's Greenwich Township home. Each symbol has a meaning, Claypoole explains: Hearts stand for romance and love of mankind, distlefinks -- stylized goldfinches -- signify abundance (but with eyes looking backward toward Germany). Snakes symbolize temptation. The Pennsylvania Dutch decorated everything with these symbols, furniture, birth certificates, even Bibles, he says. The concept of using the symbols for good luck or to ward off evil was publicly introduced in Wallace Nutting's 1924 book, ''Pennsylvania Beautiful,'' where he called the designs ''hexafoos,'' or witch's foot. He coined the ''hex sign'' moniker for the images that had previously been known simply as schtanne and blumme, stars and flowers. Claypoole breaks a sly smile when asked if he attaches any meaning other than decoration to his work, probably the same smile generations of farmers gave before they answered, ''Yuscht fer schee'' -- just for nice, the answer he always gives. Yoder, whose book is still the go-to source for information on hex signs decades after it was first published, plays down their mystical properties. He does, however, acknowledge the designs were used on the underside of furniture, the backs of mirrors and on paper rolled into scrolls that homeowners inserted into holes drilled into door frames and window lintels (with the hope that they would protect their houses). On barns, farmers were using hex signs simply to show ''that they cared about the aesthetics of the landscape.'' ''But use these designs on barns to keep witches away? No!'' Yoder writes. 

He also writes that the story of hex signs still is being written. At age 22, Donmoyer is poised to be among the prime champions who continue the story. He lectures on the meaning of ''hexerei'' (hex signs) and continues to dig deep into their rich history. Some of the symbols, he says, date back to Norse, and even pagan, art. And it is no coincidence that the hub of hex sign activity is here rather than, say, New York or New Jersey. ''There was freedom of religion in Pennsylvania,'' he says. ''People were afraid of so many things. Even 'witches' were protected here.'' Donmoyer notes hex signs might be for more than just decoration and there could be a link to powwowing, a Pennsylvania German practice of healing using a core group of prayers. The practice was driven underground, where it remains today. Statements by other hex sign experts that the signs couldn't have mystical meanings because they're so public and out there for the world to see are misleading, Donmoyer says. While many can be seen from main roads, many are painted on the other side of the barn, which only could be seen by the family, he says. Protecting a barn -- the center of a farmer's life and livelihood -- from witches, even if they were only people who were very attuned to animals or nature, may or may not be whimsical. ''But witches were not the only reason to protect a barn,'' he says, referring to theft, fire and disease as other tragedies that could befall a farm or a home. 

Although the exact meaning of hex signs may be known only to the farmers who painted them so many years ago, they are interesting and worth studying, he says. ''So many areas don't have something like this,'' he says, ''It's worth the time to approach them with gratitude.'' mariella.savidge@... 610-778-2253 


The most authentic hex signs are painted onto barns and are said to invite good luck while keeping away evil and tragedy. Some of the most frequently used designs have specific meanings, though there is no verifiable source for any of them:
  • 4-point star: the four seasons, good luck
  • 5-point star: protection against evil, five senses, good luck
  • Double 5-point star: sun and light
  • 6-point star: prosperity, good luck, protection from lightening, perfect marriage
  • 6-petal rosette: faith, fertility, protection from harm. One of the most common symbols, it is said to be one of the most ancient.
  • 8-point star: fertility, perseverance
  • 12-point star: the months of the year, rationalism, justice
  • Hearts: love
  • Raindrops: fertility, abundance
  • Tulips: faith, hope and charity; the holy trinity
  • Oak leaves: strength
  • Maple leaves: contentment
  • Distlefinks: (goldfinches) abundance, good luck, happiness
  • Snakes: temptation
  • Scalloped edge (waves): tranquility, smooth sailing
  • Closed circle edge: eternity
Various sources 


Hex sign colors, as well as shapes, have meanings. In fact, they usually emphasize the meaning of the symbols. Although there are no verifiable sources, these are the meanings that folklore has conveyed to generations of Pennsylvania Dutch families:
  • Red: love
  • Orange: success, career
  • Yellow: health, sun
  • Green: growth, good fortune, fertility
  • Blue: protection, peace, calm, spirituality
  • Purple: spirituality, intuition, sanctity
  • Brown: earth, nature
  • White: purity, free flow of energy
  • Black: protection
Various sources

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