Author Topic: Amish/Pennsylvania Dutch "Hex Signs"  (Read 6462 times)

Devious Viper
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Amish/Pennsylvania Dutch "Hex Signs"
« on: August 07, 2006, 02:09:19 AM »
The New Age and pagan movements have over the years produced some incredible claims when attempting to seed their beliefs. Take for example so-called "Celtic magic"... To anyone living outside of Britain, and to a gullible few within, this would seem to be an ancient tradition, based heavily upon the practices and beliefs of the early inhabitants of Britain and Ireland. Actually, its all made-up, New Age nonsense, designed to separate you from your cash and make the authors look clever and wise as well as well-off.

How about those Pennsylvania Hex signs that Silver Ravenwolf and Karl Herr use? The truth is, these colorful decorations seen on barns and houses in the area, are not really superstitious or magickal symbols at all. The bright patterns and geometric forms, were used by the ancestors of the Pennsylvania German settlers on birth certificates, furniture, pottery, textiles, etc. Indeed many are thought to have come originally from religious motif designs, the two main patterns being the Sun and Tree of Life. While many people today use Hex Signs purely for decoration, the Amish have not painted and do not paint hex signs on their barns.

In the next few posts I will outline the more common designs.

« Last Edit: August 07, 2006, 02:34:40 AM by Devious Viper »

Devious Viper
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Re: Amish/Pennsylvania Dutch "Hex Signs"
« Reply #1 on: August 07, 2006, 02:13:06 AM »
One of the more familiar geometric hex signs is the 8 Pointed Star. It features a large, eight-pointed star usually blue in color. Nestled between the star’s points are alternating red tulips and stylized sheaves of wheat. A smaller eight-pointed star forms the design center. The stars and sheaves of wheat symbolize abundance and goodwill. The tulips provide faith and trust in God and mankind. Overall, this design reflects abundance in their lives and goodwill to all.  Its striking appearance and design clarity make it a popular choice for decorating large buildings.
« Last Edit: August 07, 2006, 04:20:44 AM by Devious Viper »

Devious Viper
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Re: Amish/Pennsylvania Dutch "Hex Signs"
« Reply #2 on: August 07, 2006, 02:15:55 AM »
Another of the classic hex signs is Home Wilkum. This design is often seen on porches and other entry ways. The large stylized Pennsylvania Dutch greeting, "Wilkum," extends a warm and friendly welcome to all. Facing Distelfink birds provide a generous measure of happiness and good fortune for all. A "lucky" star and greenery mean a bountiful life. Overall, this design welcomes others to your home.
« Last Edit: August 07, 2006, 04:21:57 AM by Devious Viper »

Devious Viper
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Re: Amish/Pennsylvania Dutch "Hex Signs"
« Reply #3 on: August 07, 2006, 02:18:00 AM »
The hex sign called Maple Leaf features five large maple leaves in colorful earth tones radiating from the design center. The colorful leaves symbolize the diversity and beauty of life here on earth. An eight-petal rosette in the design center, offering good luck, completes the design. Overall, the Maple Leaf design means appreciation of life’s beauty; sweetness and purity of life is another accepted meaning.
« Last Edit: August 07, 2006, 04:22:39 AM by Devious Viper »

Devious Viper
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Re: Amish/Pennsylvania Dutch "Hex Signs"
« Reply #4 on: August 07, 2006, 02:23:07 AM »
A somewhat unusual hex sign is called Tree of Life. It features a large stylized tree lush with God’s bountiful fruit. Each of the tree’s fruits depicts a traditional geometric hex design. The rosette means good luck; the eight-pointed star abundance; the hearts symbolise love and romance; the tulips shower life with faith, hope, and charity; and the rain sign shows harmony with nature. An "endless" outer circle symbolizes everlasting life. The Tree of Life design offers a "happy life and joyful memories" for all.
« Last Edit: August 07, 2006, 04:24:38 AM by Devious Viper »

Devious Viper
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Re: Amish/Pennsylvania Dutch "Hex Signs"
« Reply #5 on: August 07, 2006, 02:37:46 AM »
The hex sign Willkommen  features a large "welcome greeting" (in German) to one and all. The large, red heart is centrally placed to proclaim a loving heart and home. Tulips, grouped in couples, symbolize the importance of family and friends play in a happy life. Here, they shower the "home" with love and support. A distelfink bird watches over the home with an added measure of happiness. Overall, this design conveys a happy home and many friends. Personalized, like the example shown, it makes a welcome gift for family and friends.
« Last Edit: August 07, 2006, 04:25:43 AM by Devious Viper »

Devious Viper
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Re: Amish/Pennsylvania Dutch "Hex Signs"
« Reply #6 on: August 07, 2006, 02:40:05 AM »
One of the most popular hex symbols is Dutch Irish. It features a large, green shamrock, the traditional good luck sign of the Irish, as the design’s center or heart. A pair of Irish Distelfink birds shower the shamrock with a "double measure" of happiness and good fortune. Trinity tulips add faith, hope and charity; the decorative heart is overflowing with love for all. This design proclaims good luck of the Irish.
 
« Last Edit: August 07, 2006, 04:26:21 AM by Devious Viper »

Devious Viper
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Re: Amish/Pennsylvania Dutch "Hex Signs"
« Reply #7 on: August 07, 2006, 02:41:31 AM »
A well known geometric hex design is Sun, Rain and Fertility, featuring a large, eight-pointed star with a stylized "sun" center. The sun warms the earth and lights our lives. Rain drops, shown in an endless circle, provide the unending moisture critical to life on earth. Together they provide all God’s people with a bountiful harvest and renewed life. Overall, this design offers abundance in field, barn and home.
« Last Edit: August 07, 2006, 04:27:11 AM by Devious Viper »

Devious Viper
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Re: Amish/Pennsylvania Dutch "Hex Signs"
« Reply #8 on: August 07, 2006, 04:42:20 AM »
I would hate for anyone to think I am putting myself forward as an expert in all things Amish/Pennsylvania Dutch - I am merely an interested layman. I've double-checked to ensure that the information I provided above is unbiased and accurate. Here are a few more snippets I've found that, if you're as interested as I am, you might like to read:

"A trip through Northern Berks County, the land of the "Fancy" Pennsylvania Dutch, will take you through fertile countryside where hundred year old Pennsylvania German barns are decorated with a unique folk art design, referred to as hex signs. Also called Barn art, the hex sign area includes all of Berks and Lehigh, and portions of seven adjacent counties. The heaviest concentrations are found in the area of Old Route 22 - The Hex Tour Highway.

The shaping of the Hex Highway landscape shows a strong influence of Swiss and German immigrants to this region during the 18th and 19th centuries. Collectively known as the "Pennsylvania Dutch", these people developed a rich folk art tradition of colorful quilts, needlework, decorative arts and paint decorated furniture unique to Dutch Country. Although the tradition of painting hex signs did not begin until the mid-nineteenth century, the geometric patterns and symbolism of barn decorations traces its root to the artistry and symbolism of Medieval Europe.

The decoration of barns is a very late development in the Pennsylvania German folk art. Prior to the 1830's, the cost of paint meant that most barns were left unpainted. As paint became affordable, the Pennsylvania Germans began to decorate their barns much like they decorated items in their homes. Barn decorating reached its peak in the early twentieth century, at which time there were many artists who specialized in barn decorating. Drawn from a large repertoire of folk designs, barn painters combined many elements in their decorations. The geometric patterns of quilts can easily 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."

I have seen a few New Age sites that put forward the "hex" means "witch" theory. But that is revisionist at best; in actuality, the most popular hex signs were six-sided, brightly colored geometric designs.  The German word for six  is 'sechs' and it is this word which evolved to the present-day hex.
« Last Edit: August 07, 2006, 12:25:54 PM by Devious Viper »

Devious Viper
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Re: "Hex Signs"
« Reply #9 on: August 07, 2006, 04:48:00 AM »
The Story of the Hex Sign
(Amish Country News, October, 2001)

Over a period of many years, the story evolved that local Pennsylvania German farmers put colorful symbols called "hex signs" on their barns to keep the evil spirits away or to bring good luck. That at first seems to make sense in that the word "hex" means "witch" in German. The tourist industry helped to get the "hex sign" myth going and the term appeared in print around the mid-1930’s. But as with many of our local customs, we need to go back to Europe.

The use of stars and circles in art and decoration goes back thousands of years. These "folk art" designs of rosettes, stars, circles can be seen on everything from tombstones and birth certificates, to furniture and plates. As Don Yoder and Thomas Graves say in their excellent book HEX SIGNS, published by Stackpole Books, "the meanings we find in the hex signs are ethnic identity, ethnic pride, and the pure joy of colorful decoration." They noted that the increased use and public display of these decorations might have had something to do with the State's efforts to "rid the Pennsylvania Dutch of their distinctive culture, using the state school system to mount a systematic stamping out of the German language."

Indeed, 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. 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.

Meanwhile, various novels and stories about the area tended to emphasize and exaggerate many customs of the Pennsylvania Dutch, often pairing the Amish and hex signs together. For example, the Broadway musical Plain & Fancy had a scene in which an Amishman put a "hex" on his neighbor’s barn! Interestingly, the Amish did not adopt the custom of decorating their barns, and do not use hex signs to this day.

Of course, scholars tried to dispel some of these ideas. In 1953, Alfred Shoemaker, of Franklin & Marshall College’s Pennsylvania Folklore Center, wrote a booklet titled HEX, NO! He concludes with the following comment, "I must say with absolute honesty that I have never found a single shred of evidence to substantiate any other conclusion but this: ‘hex signs’ are used but for one purpose, and to put it in the Pennsylvania Dutchman's own words, "Just for nice." "

Indeed, for locals and visitors, hex signs are displayed because they are pretty, plain and simple. Over the years, many "new designs" were developed as part of the commercial hex sign business. Many of these are rooted in traditional folk art, such as the "distlefink," a bird design that now symbolizes good luck and, not surprisingly, the shamrock! Many "hexologists" today create new designs and ascribe the meanings to them, based on the combinations and symbolism involved.

All of this brings us to the town of Paradise and Jacob Zook, "the Hex Man." According to an old brochure from his shop, "Paradise is where it all started in 1942. Intrigued by some hex signs obtained from a salesman, Jacob Zook endeavored to learn everything he could about these quaint, colorful pieces of Americana. Mr. Zook started painting signs and eventually built up a local following and, with increased publicity, a national reputation as well."

I had the pleasure of meeting Jacob a few years before his death. He was a little man full of energy with good stories to tell. It was clear to me that his personality had much to do with the proliferation of these colorful designs through the technique of silk-screening.

After his passing, Bill and Charlotte Marsh took over his business and sell not only Zook’s hex signs, and those of other "hex artists," but the works of over 300 other Dutch craftsmen as well. At Will-Char, the "Hex Place," the wonderful tradition of the hex sign lives on, and their hex signs are sold in many of the local gift shops.

For visitors to Lancaster County, hex signs remain a colorful and delightful gift or souvenir, as they are truly something unique to the Pennsylvania Dutch area.
« Last Edit: August 07, 2006, 05:15:04 AM by Devious Viper »

Morticia
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Re: Amish/Pennsylvania Dutch "Hex Signs"
« Reply #10 on: August 13, 2006, 08:09:03 AM »
You can find versions of some of the designs on their quilts too.

~Morticia