I drive by them a thousand times and always assumed the circle/square patterns decorating the barns, houses, quilts, and furniture across the Midwest were just that: circle/square patterns, populated by polygons and plants, and matched by people with a better sense of color than me.
A narrow horse barn near my house had two dozen slapped up on its side. They hadn’t been painted on but looked like enamel on sheet metal. Nothing weird. Faux folk art in a farm town an hour’s drive from Chicago.
Then I got to reading and stumbled upon on the complex supernatural origins of these hex signs adorning thousands of barns, sheds, quilts, and furniture from Indiana to New York. Bright signage carried across the Atlantic centuries earlier. But did they hold a mysterious power as well..?
No. They don’t.
There are between 150,000 and 300,000 native speakers of the Pennsylvania Dutch language in the United States. The term “Pennsylvania Dutch” refers to the language itself (also called “Pennsylvania German”), since the classification sometimes apples to a spectrum of groups, including orthodox Amish and Mennonites. In this case, Dutch doesn’t really mean Dutch; it is a mispronunciation of Deutsch, likely something these good people were too polite to correct.
These group emigrated to the US centuries ago (1683!), yet hundreds of thousands have retained the use of their language even today. From a linguistic perspective, that’s an impressive feat, like juggling tennis balls in a tornado: not technically impossible but damn difficult. These immigrants brought delicious food, agricultural advances, music, and literature. Many of the most ardent abolitionists were German-Americans.
They refined and redefined American culture. One family of these Pennsylvania Dutch moved to northern Indiana and settled near the shore of Lake Michigan to found a wagon company. The family? Studebaker.
They also brought a strange style of folk art, now known as “hex signs.” The intimidating phrase is derived from the German ‘hexenFuß‘ or “witch’s foot.” As ominous as it might sound, the name had no connection to the actual folk art. It just sounded spooky. I am 100% serious.
While researching the works adorning. barns across Pennsylvania, famous minister and historian Wallace Nutting received a cold shoulder from the Pennsylvania Dutch. Since they didn’t provide a history, Nutting provided his own.
“….these cabalistic marks on barns were a simpler and more humane measure against witches than those which were adopted in New England. If by a swastika sign on a door or a forebay, the power of a witch on the building concerned could be averted, there was no need of hanging the witch, and the danger of hanging some excellent old lady under wrong apprehensions was avoided.”
The communities disdain for Nutting’s inquires weren’t unjustified. They saw this increasing interest in the folk art—which they referred to as ‘Stars’ or ‘flowers’—as an invasion of commercialism, greed, and the weakening of their proud traditions.
Nutting’s reputation gave these hex rumors significant credence. His books were extremely popular in the United States. He reproduced and sold hand-colored landscape photos of isolated America and defined what constituted early American furniture. In short, he’s the patron saint of the Antiques Roadshow.
For a time, this style remained regional, but as Americans evolved into touring motorists (circa 1920), interest in the isolated world of the Pennsylvania Dutch spread, particularly in its folk art. From the roads and highways in and around Pennsylvania and New York, Americans delighted in these uniquely patterned circles adorning the homes, outbuildings, and barns. The symmetry and startling bright colors, often by using milk paint. To Americans, folk art was nothing new, but they had never seen anything like this.
Nutting’s fiction had worked well. What originally started out as pretty, symmetrical pictures decorating barns across Middle America became holistic decor against a variety of supernatural elements. Demons, witches, illness, bad smells, bad feelings…what ever people wanted. They were especially popular for blessing new homes or households.
These symbols did hold significance for the Germanic communities in both the United States and Europe. Like a polite response to sneezing (“Bless you!”), knocking on wood, or mounting a horseshoe on a barn, the German-Americans had long forgotten the specific meaning behind the colorful symbols. It was a tradition in and of itself—a shibboleth, or symbol unique to a specific group that has lost all or most of its original meaning.
For some reason, Americans have a large and long strip of xenophobia running through them. An odd characteristic for a nation of immigrants, but there it is. These Pennsylvania Dutch—who always viewed themselves not as Germans or German-Americans, but simply Americans—were generally welcoming to the attention.