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The Story of the Hex Sign

 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 scholars are still arguing over the origins and meanings behind what we now call hex signs. 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, and the "Tree of Life" with their connection to the sun, nature, and the celestial, can be seen on everything from tombstones and birth certificates, to furniture and plates. Over the hundreds of years that these basic designs have been used, there are certainly times when the symbols may have had an association with superstition or religion. And, since the use of these designs on houses and buildings in Europe was relatively rare, their unique application on barns in Pennsylvania fueled the hex sign idea. But even though the Pennsylvania Dutch were often a superstitious lot, the use of hex signs is restricted to a fairly limited area.

A more recent, and more accepted interpretation of the hex sign is as an indicator of "ethnic symbolism." 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 even 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, ‘chust 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. It really began to come together upon meeting Johnny Ott, who taught Jacob the art and lore of the Hex sign. 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 local Amish, Mennonite, and 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.

Over the years, I have heard of people who request a special custom-designed hex sign be made for them, to help with some special problem they had. I once talked to a couple who told me in all seriousness that the "fertility" hex sign they had purchased definitely worked for them! And the Internet has brought the colorful patterns and designs to people all over the world.

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. As Yoder and Graves note at the conclusion of their book, "the hex sign speaks to us and beckons us, as if by magic, into the spirit of the place and into the heart of the people who painted them."

Amish Country News Cover Article by Brad Igou (October, 2001)

 

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