I was fascinated when I first saw hex signs on PA barns, shortly after moving to Central PA about 25 years ago. As I’ve been interested in myth and folklore for my entire life, I thought I saw a recognizable system in those repeating star patterns and sun wheels which decorated barns in Berks, Lehigh, Schuykill and Lebanon counties. Back into the distant past, all over Europe (and Asia, too), these symbols were used for luck, for fertility and for warding against evil.
Among scholars there is ample disagreement on this subject, but on balance, I think it’s safe to say that these signs arrived with early German settlers. Perhaps they were North Germans or Silesians, not Rhinelanders or Austrians, but it’s not clear whether all or only a few groups brought the hex sign to the US. It certainly wasn’t the Mennonite Amish, (who passed through Switzerland) although, sometimes, in travel brochures and on restaurant placemats, the Old Order Amish and hex signs are pictured together. In fact, the Amish forbid ornamentation, so you definitely won’t see hex signs on their barns.(Not for nothing are they called: “Plain People.”)
Most likely, ordinary Lutherans who had been farmers in the Old Country brought the symbols with them as part of a hoary rural tradition. These Volk loved to decorate just about everything, from chairs to doorsills—and they did. At any rate, many believe these symbols were an ancient German artistic tradition—aesthetics–rather than some underground religion. In the old country, “hexes” appear on everything from chairs and hope chests to beams, from birth certificates to gable end panels.
After the Civil War, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania attempted to complete assimilation of the persistently German speaking communities by requiring “English only” in the public schools. In the book “Hex Signs” by Yoder & Graves, the authors claim that in reaction, hex signs were even more widely painted upon barns and incorporated into architectural details, such as decorative trim, during this period. Psychologically, during a time of stress, it became a necessary form of self-definition for German descendants.
Many surviving barn signs appear to have been painted in the post civil war era. In modern times, the hex sign has grown in popularity, and in familiarity, too. The use of the signs is far more wide spread than in the last century. This is partly due to the efforts of regional tourism and partly due to a widely renewed interest in folklore and myth.
Many stores in Lancaster County sell hex signs, and many new ones–obviously not traditional–for instance one which incorporates shamrocks–have been devised for the tourist industry.
A brief guide to hex symbols
Five pointed stars = goddess symbols Goddess equals fertility and protection So if you multiply the angles, you are multiplying the magic and therefore, the protection.
The Rosette is perhaps star and flower combined
Sun symbols—swastika—for motion, the never-ending cycle of seasonal nature. Sun light is preeminently important to a farming people who live at high latitudes, like the Germans.
Rain—raindrops appear in spirals or circles Sun and Rain = fertility and prosperity = many crops, food, animals Sprigs of wheat are a direct representation of what the farmer wants.
Hearts- traditionally for affection, unity and love, and also the Tulip, a symbol which must have slipped across the border from Holland for prosperity, and perfection.
Birds—the ancient love bird symbol, a happy marriage symbol For my cover, Lejoy Rothke and I decided to create our own hex sign, incorporating all the old time elements. In fact, these days, many craftspeople have copyrighted their own versions of the originals. We didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, so we created one and made it part of the story. At the end of “Hand-me-Down Bride,” the young hero asks a local barn painter to make a hex for his door. He’s not only embraced the young woman of the title, but is also reconsidering his relationship to his own immigrant heritage. It seemed to be a suitable ending for this very American story.