Today’s Pennsylvania Dutch are descendants of the German immigrants who settled in the Lancaster, Berks, Lehigh, and Lebanon counties in the late 1600’s. Groups of refugees from the Rhine region of Germany (which included Swiss-Germans) migrated to Pennsylvania in search of the religious freedom promised by William Penn. Originally labeled the Pennsylvania “Deutsch”, English settlers later rebranded them as Pennsylvania “Dutch”.
Among the Pennsylvania Dutch were two fairly distinct groups; the “Plain” Dutch which included groups of Amish, Mennonites, and Dunkards were strict with their way of life while the “Fancy” Dutch enjoyed things of elegance – color, art, fellowship, and good food. Perhaps the most prominent symbol of Pennsylvania Dutch culture, while only truly representing the “Fancy Dutch”, is the often misunderstood hex sign. For many, hex signs symbolize the Pennsylvania Dutch heritage and are believed to bring good luck in a variety of forms. So what exactly is a hex sign?
“Hex” designs are circular geometric patterns with a lineage that dates back approximately six thousand years in the Neolithic Man. The designs reappeared in 2000-1000 BC civilizations, and then again later in Roman and Estruscan cultures. These hex designs were first adopted by the Pennsylvania Dutch in the 1830’s when farmers began to paint their barns, using the basic hex symbols for decoration. The most basic of hex designs utilized on most barns is the six pointed star.
The name, “hex signs”, originates from the German word sechs or sects which inherently sounds similar to hex. Scholars in the 1900’s began calling these designs “hex signs” and falsely created the myth they were used to essentially ward off witches. Many of the symbols seen on hex signs originated from the Swiss-German people, each with individual meanings. Among the most popular are hearts to symbolize love, birds (known as Distelfinks) to symbolize luck and happiness, tulips for faith, stars for good luck, serpents to ward off evil, and scalloped borders resembling the ocean to ensure smooth sailing through life.
Hex signs also often utilize specific colors, again, each with specific meanings. Blue symbolizes truth, love, protection, and spiritual strength. Red symbolizes love and/or strong emotions. White symbolizes innocence, purity, and eternal life. Yellow symbolizes the life giving sun, the love of God, and warmth in general. Green symbolizes abundance and fertility as well as often being associated with spring, children, and good fortune. Brown symbolizes harvest and the cycle of life.
There are various misconceptions about the Pennsylvania Dutch hex sign. One of the biggest is that the designs are utilized to ward off witches. As aforementioned, this idea and the consequential mislabeling of “hex signs” were falsely created in the 1900’s by scholars trying to explain this popular local tradition. In actuality, the circular hex signs painted on the sides of barns are strictly for decoration, often containing the same symbols used by the Pennsylvania Dutch to decorate birth certificates, grave stones, and furniture.
Another popular misconception is that the Plain People of Lancaster County are somehow attached to hex signs. Despite the hex sign clad brochures and advertisements you’ll see throughout the area, you will likely never see a hex sign on a Lancaster County Amish barn. While the Lancaster County Amish, Mennonites, and Dunkards are Pennsylvania Dutch, they are considered the “Plain Dutch” which do not subscribe to the artistic and colorful culture of the “Fancy” Dutch.
Pennsylvania Dutch is also a spoken dialect synonymous with the people who speak it. Upon settling, the German speaking Pennsylvania Dutch found it difficult to carry out trade with the various neighboring settlers. At this time, there were no schools and consequentially few opportunities to learn to read or write. As a result, they began to break down their true German to include bits of English and Swiss to form their own dialect which is now identifiable as “Pennsylvania Dutch”.
In modern society, the dialect has died out quite a bit. In fact, it has become increasingly difficult to find true, fluent speakers of the dialect. For this reason, the Amish, Mennonites, and Dunkards of Lancaster County are gradually being considered the remains of the true Pennsylvania Dutch. These “Plain People” represent a small percentage of the Pennsylvania Dutch, but are the most identifiable due to the seemingly peculiar way they dress in contrast to the dress of the average Pennsylvania Dutch person.
Hex Signs Featured on Local Buildings and Barns – Photos by Staff