Monday, September 24, 2012

Hex Signs

Hex Signs have been the subject of a lot of misinformation, myth, and confusion. They're the colorful round Pennsylvania Dutch decorations we all recognize, but most people know little about them. The artwork is German or "Deutsch" in origin, involving symbols of nature, colorful birds such as the Distlefink, and German words such as "Wilkommmen."

Most information available about Hex Signs is not historical; it's little more than speculation, based on legends and folklore instead of fact. The truth is, the first Hex Sign was The Barn Star. In the early 1900's in the southeastern area of Pennsylvania, the first and only property insurance company selected a logo for itself: The Barn Star.

The company painted their logo on all of the barns they insured. They did this for business reasons. It easily identified their customers for them and served as free advertising. 

Since the insurance company had to pay for loss, they'd often let local fire departments know that it was imperative that they extinguish any fire in a barn displaying a Barn Star as quickly as possible. In return, they took good care of the firefighters that saved them money by saving the barn.
That's the whole beginning of the good luck Hex sign tale. Because of the times, barn fires weren't too uncommon. People started to note that anytime there was a fire in a barn with Barn Star Hex Sign, it was often saved quickly. People started saying that those barn stars must bring luck and protection, when really all they brought were hard working fireman trying to earn some extra cash.
The distinctive star design just happened to be the one the insurance company selected as their logo. Many symbols are part of the Deutsch settlers' heritage. Like shamrocks in Ireland, totem poles in the Pacific Northwest, Sombreros in Mexico or maple leaves in Canada, they're just designs and symbols that are part of the Germanic heritage. They carry no magical powers. They don't come together to form spells. They're just birds, flowers, and designs.
The Hex Sign designs were usually painted directly onto the barn building or structure. There were no special messages behind them. Sometimes it was simply a way to decorate. Sometimes it also showed that a Deutsch family lived there, so other Deutsch settlers would know. Sometimes it was a unique design, shared on all the buildings on a person's properties to show that they were all part of the same farmstead. And sometimes it helped identify a certain farm for  family and friends travelling to visit. The roads weren't always well marked, and the visitors didn't always speak English or read signs and directions well. But they could always show a drawn symbol as a way of asking for directions, and be pointed in the right direction.

Some symbols were used to relay an obvious message. For example, a Hex Sign that says "Wilkum" means "Welcome." There's no big mystery there. A sign with a cow or horse head, means there are cows or horses or livestock in that barn. This might be akin to hanging a "Please Rescue my Pomeranian In Case of Fire" yellow diamond sign we might hang in our window today. 

There are two main reasons for all the myths about Hex Signs.

The first reason for the misinformation about Hex Signs is speculation based on the idea that no one would go through all the trouble of painting a perfect symbol like these Hex Signs for merely aesthetic  purposes. They thought, surely there must be another reason, something mysterious and compelling. This is the big reason for all the fancy legends and tall tales.

Yes, believe it or not, people spent time doing things right back then. They put effort, time and energy into their handiwork, in everything they made from quilts to hand-crafted furniture, to painted decor.

The German people were especially proud of their families and their accomplishments. Traveling across an ocean to settle a farm in a far away land took courage and hard work. Of course they were proud of that, who wouldn't be. And of course they were proud enough and patient enough to demonstrate great care with all their work.

There is no such thing as a bad or negative Hex sign. It's all simply folkart. Sometimes the symbols used represent a certain sentiment. For example, two birds facing each other means love. Two birds facing away from each other means trust. Unicorns mean virture. Tulips mean faith. Eagles mean good health. Doves mean peace, Oak leaves mean strength, and so on.

There is no such thing as a wrong Hex Sign to give to someone or display on your home. But sometimes there's a most appropriate one, that's all.  You might give one with Oak leaves to a medical practice, or to someone who has suffered an ailment. You might give birds facing each other with a heart to newlyweds. But wishing anyone "good health" or "love" is always a good thing.

The second reason for all the bad info out there, is Wallace Nutting. These decorations were not called Hex Signs until Wallace Nutting decided to call them that in the late 1920's, hexe being German for "witch."

Nutting was not from Pennsylvania and was not German. 

Before that, the people who created and used these decorations simply called them "schtanne and blumme," or, stars and flowers.

Nutting attended Harvard, was a successful artist, writer, and antique curator. He was also a minister. He tended to call things outside of his realm of experience and the Christian faith, witch-names. Calling these lovely peaceful European designs "witch" signs is an example of Nutting's thinking; limited at best and xenophobic at worst. Because of his status, his beliefs weren't questioned, they were readily accepted.
These lovely Hex Signs are still made, displayed, and collected. They really are nothing more than decorative items to brighten a wall, symbolizing only positive ideas like strength and love.

We have several examples of reproduction Hex Signs for sale in various Treasure Map Locations right now at Scranberry Coop. They make nice housewarming gifts. There's something for everyone at Scranberry Coop.


Anthony said...

I had no idea of any of this. Thanks so much for this very in depth article. I live in Jersey, have been to Amish country a couple times years ago, and you see these Hex signs for sale and on buildings. I had no idea they were just designs. It does make sense that travelers that don't speak English could find your farm but showing your symbol. Also the logic of it, that there's a cattle head one on a barn with - lol hello, cattle. People look for things that aren't there and want to think all these crazy things. The truth is usually pretty obvious if you think about it. I'm going to share this with my wife and pick out some Hex Signs to display on and in our house. I think they're cool and now that I know their story I want one.

Scranberry Coop2 said...

Thanks for your comment, Anthony!

They are pretty, aren't they? And they do have a nice story. They're part of our local culture and history.

I'm glad you're thinking about displaying some in or around your home. They're fun, and great conversation pieces. I'm always glad to see them here when a dealer brings some in. I personally have a nice collection of them, and I've gotten almost all of them at The Coop.