There are many different ways that a farmer can adorn their barn with artwork. Much of it involves intricate carvings that no one can really admire except those who get up close. For farmers in Pennsylvania Dutch country they adorn their barns differently. They paint hex signs on their barns and if you know where to look they are quite easy to find.
Hex signs originated with fraktur art developed by early Pennsylvania Dutch settlers around 1740. This folk art was usually small, being found on birth certificates, marriage blessings or small home decor. The first hex signs date to the 1850s and were just larger versions of fraktur art. The hex sign that is common today became popular in the 1940s in an attempt to bring in tourism which also coincided with the price of paint becoming more affordable. A mountable sign was developed in 1942 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and sold in highway gift shops to tourists.
The art is typically geometric and resembles a quilt pattern. Typically it is an octagon or a hexagon and usually includes stars, a compass, birds, hearts or tulips. Some believe that the art is a talisman while some believe it is purely for decorative purposes. Either way there are many superstitions associated with the hex signs though no one believes they have any sort of magical powers. They do have meaning for those who put the signs on their barns, usually something positive like long life, fertility or luck.
Since experts cannot agree why the art is popular it should be no surprise that they also cannot agree on the origin of the term hex. Some believe that it comes from the occult since the word “hex” in Pennsylvania German means witch. The German word for witch is “hexe” and in Dutch it is “heks” so it is easy to see how that term came to be especially with the religious nature of many Pennsylvania Dutch. The problem is the first time they were referred to as a hex sign was in the 20th century when a man named Wallace Nutting was writing a book about Pennsylvania and interviewed several local farmers. Many simply called them flowers or stars but one called it a hexafoos, or witch’s foot and it stuck. Local leaders ran with it later in order to expand the local tourist industry. Some experts also believe that the hex sign dates back to Neolithic times and are painted prayers. Others theorize that the popularity of the artwork is just a way to show their pride in their ancestry and to express their opposition to the government trying to suppress the Pennsylvania German language.
For all of the tourists that come to Pennsylvania Dutch country it may come as a surprise that many (if not all) Amish and Mennonite farmers have a negative view of hex signs and therefore they are rarely seen on their barns. If a tourist wants to see hex signs they will need to head north of Lancaster County to either Berks County or Lehigh County. Berks County has the most hex barns and offers a driving tour that puts over 40 barns on display.