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The Scholars’ War
Just what are the hex signs supposed to mean, if they have any meaning at all? This question lifts the lid on an acrimonious and ongoing controversy in the world of Pennsylvania Dutch scholarship. At the heart of this controversy lies the the fragmented character of Pennsylvania Dutch culture itself. It has become a culture divided into radically opposing camps.
While the outside world has been aware of hex signs through fiction and magazine illustrations since the turn of the century, the year 1924 marks the beginning of the scholarly hex-sign controversy. Illustrations of hex-sign barns appeared in the October 1924 Journal of the American Institute of Architects in an article by C.H. Whitaker, who described them as “ornaments with sun bursts in yellow or with other curious designs, some said to be symbolic and also said not to be.” Whitaker was quoted as saying, “Some day I may be persuaded to find out just what these curious decorations mean.” We regret to report that he never continued his search.
It was Wallace Nutting’s Pennsylvania Beautiful, which also appeared in 1924, that lit the fires of controversy:
The ornaments on barns found in Pennsylvania, and to some small extent in West Jersey, go by the local name of hexafoos, or witch foot. . . . They are supposed to be a continuance of very ancient tradition, according to which these decorative marks were potent to protect the barn, or more particularly the cattle, from the influence of witches. . . . The hexafoos was added to its decoration as a kind of spiritual or demoniac lightning-rod.
Nutting claimed to have gotten this interpretation from a single informant—a dangerous practice in fieldwork—who convinced him that the emigrants had brought the practice from their European homelands.
Nutting’s statement and his term Hexafoos were widely copied in other treatments of the Pennsylvania Dutch and have been the major contributor to the tourist literature focusing on the supposed apotropaic or evil-deflecting purpose of the barn decorations.
The leading scholarly apologist for the magical and apotropaic interpretation of the hex signs was Dr. August C. Mahr (1886-1970), a professor at Ohio State University, himself of German birth. In several articles that appeared both in Germany and in the United States in the 1950s, one of which achieved canonization of sorts by its inclusion in a major introductory text in American folklore, Professor Mahr held the line that the signs not only had meaning, but they were indeed “hex signs,” looked upon by their painters and possessors as having magical protective powers. His work was comparative, citing examples of the use of these motifs from various parts of Europe. He drew some interesting conclusions. Faced with the fact that in Europe the signs are not usually found on building facades except in places like Canton Bern, Switzerland, he developed the theory that the Swiss emigrant among the Pennsylvania Dutch, in shifting from his usual wooden house facade to a stone structure in Pennsylvania, transferred the geometrical signs that in Switzerland appeared on the front of his house to his wooden barn facade.
It was Mahr’s opinion that the Pennsylvania Dutch preserved and used the hex signs here because their forefathers had used them in Europe. They were part of the traditional community culture of the Rhineland villages, and the Pennsylvania Dutch continued to use them here because they preserved more of the European traditional sense of community than did their ethnic neighbors. He concluded that the average Pennsylvania Dutchman wanted hex signs on his barn because it was part of his “group psychology” to need them. To the outsider, he will probably deny that they are hex signs, while he continues to secretly believe in their efficacy—an attribution of double standardism to the Dutch for which the professor has often been criticized. Yet Mahr’s thesis is a thoughtful one, and right or wrong, he stirred up a great deal of attention.
The direction opposite of the apotropaic theory is the theory that the hex signs have no hidden or occult meanings at all, but are plain, ordinary decorations. The principal spokesman for the decorative theory was Dr. Alfred L. Shoemaker (b. 1913), who aired his ideas in his popular pamphlets, Hex, No! (1953) and Three Myths about the Pennsylvania Dutch Country (1951), as well as in his scholarly volume The Pennsylvania Barn (1955). From his wide research in both Europe and America, Shoemaker came to the conclusion that the hex signs were “pure and simple decorative motifs.” As such, they had no underlying program—that is, they were not used for magical purposes.
Like all other ethnic groups in America, the Pennsylvania Dutch did believe in the powers of witchcraft. They brought from Europe traditional strategies for dealing with witches and for protecting their property against evil forces. In his reasoning against the theory that hex signs were actually put on barns to ward off witches, Professor Shoemaker pointed out that the hex-sign belt is really a limited area, with Lehigh, Berks, Bucks and Montgomery Counties at its heart.
If there were any basis to the witch angle, wouldn’t it be awfully peculiar that half of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country only believes in warding off hexes and the other half doesn’t? Moreover, isn’t it plain, common sense that magic, wherever it is practiced (and no one would deny its existence in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country—isn’t it plain common sense, I say, that a farmer would NOT parade his mysterious doings before all the gawking world to see. No, witchcraft and all that hangs together with it, is a very, very secret matter, all of it surviving underground, well hidden from view to all but the initiated. Anyone with the slightest insight into human nature must sense how utterly preposterous is the whole hex sign story.
John Joseph Stoudt (1911-1981), the pioneer folk-art scholar of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, defended the theory that the hex signs had meaning. His highly symbolist interpretations of Pennsylvania Dutch folk art appeared in a long series of books from Consider the Lilies, How They Grow (1937) to Sunbonnets and Shoofly Pie (1973). To Stoudt, the inner meaning of the signs had nothing to do with witchcraft. They issued instead from the mystical theology of Europe. Like many Dutchmen, Stoudt took offense at the alleged connection with witchcraft.
On all sides one hears the sordid story that the markings on Pennsylvania Dutch barns are the signs put there to keep the witches away. Without mincing words, this is slander on the Pennsylvania Dutch perpetrated by outsiders who, riding through the lovely countryside of Eastern Pennsylvania, are hard put to explain why such lovely farms, such well kept fields, should be marked by what they consider to be talismanic signs.
For Stoudt, it was a New England Yankee who was to blame:
Wallace Nutting in his dilettante’s book Pennsylvania Beautiful, was the first one to say that these designs were placed on the barns to scare witches away. The present writer has interviewed 165 people over 70 years of age living on farms where barns are decorated, and not one was willing to admit that these barn-designs were placed there to scare witches away. One old Lehigh County potato grower said that the nonsense about witches originated with city newspaper writers who were careless about the truth. Another old lady was waiting for the woman writer from Philadelphia to give her a piece of her mind! One man said that he had heard his father call them Dullebawne—tulips! An old lady said they were Blumensterne—flower-stars!
Stoudt felt that if the designs were really “hex” marks, then why should they appear on Bible covers, tombstones, and other “potent” religious artifacts that certainly needed no protection against witches? He found in the signs not a pagan meaning, but rather a Christian one. Though his symbolist theory has been attacked as forced—certainly not every hex sign can possibly represent his “divine lily” of the “Age of the Holy Spirit”—Stoudt was not entirely alone in his thinking.
All these hex-based and symbolist theories do not take into account that one cannot attribute to the Pennsylvania Dutchman of the present day exactly the same attitudes toward symbols that his fur-clad forefathers took in Europe, either during the Middle Ages or in pre-Christian times. Symbols may continue in use in a culture for aesthetic reasons, even after their original spiritual meanings have been lost, and yet retain aesthetic content.
By the 1940s, the scholars’ war over the hex signs had reached a draw. Regardless of meaning, the signs were accepted by the Pennsylvania Dutch themselves as symbolic of Dutchness, a potential not overlooked by Pennsylvania’s tourist industry. Dr. Arthur D. Graeff (1899-1969), by birth a Berks County Dutchman, wrote in his weekly column for the Reading Times of May 13, 1946:
The barnscapes are part of the popular heritage of the people of Southeastern Pennsylvania. You will not find their equal or their likeness in any other part of the world, not even in Europe. Nowhere will one find the geometric figures, the stars, teardrops and sunwheels which our forebears used so artistically to break the monotony of color which would otherwise appear on an 80-foot expanse of painted boards. They are as much our own as windmills belong to Holland, castles to Spain and thatched roofing to Ireland. Let’s keep them for sentiment’s sake.
Second, let’s keep them for their practical value too. Our painted barns become a financial asset to our entire community. How? As an inducement to the tourist trade. People travel thousands of miles to see the survivals of French peasantry in the Gaspé Peninsula to the north of us; they dream about visiting the missions in California and write epics on the grandeur of the plantation manors of our colonial Southland. Let our local Chambers of Commerce have something unique to tell the world about when inviting visitors to Berks and Lehigh! It will mean cash from distant places, not merely cash resulting from trading dollars with each other.
Graeff’s encouragement was echoed by many others worried about the presentation of the Pennsylvania Dutch culture, but little did he realize the radical mushrooming of the hex myth that would result from tourism after the second World War. One thing is certain: The new mythology was evidently here to stay.
A heated controversy also arose in Germany over geometric symbols and their supposed meanings. The positions developed on this question by scholars
and pseudoscholars in Germany before and during the Nazi period may have had more to do with the arguments in the United States over the meaning of hex signs than most of us would like to admit.
The background of the German scholars’ war is a long one. The tendency to romanticize the primitive and pagan Germanic past had begun long before Hitler. There was first of all the European Romantic movement, with its discovery of the “folk” and “folklore.” In the first half of the nineteenth century, the work of the Brothers Grimm, particularly Jacob Grimm’s four-volume Deutsche Mythologie (“German Mythology”), provided scholarly underpinnings for interest in the Germanic past and its supposed influences on the present through folk custom and belief. Later came the full-fledged German political nationalism with its racist spinoff, the Pan-German Movement, which in the early twentieth century—before Hitler—concerned itself with “German
” settlements and influences outside the “Fatherland.” And in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Germanophiles turned their attention to discovering the hidden meanings of the German folk-art designs that appeared on everyday objects ranging from houses to textiles. They found that these geometric designs—dignified with the “correct” German designation of Sinnbilder (“mind pictures”), rather than the classical word symbols (non-German in origin)—were actually living carryovers from the ancient Germanic past. They were, furthermore, religious symbols, and since most of them were circular in form or enclosed in circles, they were declared to be sun symbols, as well as good-luck tokens, salvation signs, and apotropaic warnings to keep harm away.
A whole school of
overenthusiastic symbol researchers developed, who carried the Germanic symbolism to ridiculous lengths. They combed rural and urban Germany for geometric symbols to which they applied their questionable theories. This, along with runology, the study of the ancient Germanic language of runes, they treated as secret knowledge that needed to be deciphered by their own inner circle. In their study, they completely ignored the fact that those who made and those who used the designs had no such understanding of their meanings.
In the 1920s, after World War I, the German people faced economic distress and disillusionment, and there was an upswing in German nationalist organizations. These organizations cultivated and used the Germanic symbols and
in a sense enabled some individuals to flee to the Germanic past to escape the present. Unfortunately, the messages of these nationalist and rightist groups were mixed with antislavism and antisemitism.
The National Socialist movement took these developments a significant step further. It politicized symbol research, elevating the swastika to its logo, and furthered the German continuity idea in Himmler’s Deutsches Ahnenerbe (“German Ancestral Heritage”) movement. The principal Nazi theorist of symbols was Karl Theodor Weigel, whose many books
, now discredited, played up the theme of “Germanic continuity.” His extensive photographic archive of symbolism , however, is a useful tool for the study of folk-art symbols and is now housed at the University of Göttingen.
One of the leading folk-art scholars in Germany, Dr. Bernward Deneke, longtime director of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nürnberg, addresses the subject in his book Europäische Volkskunst (“European Folk Art”), a volume in the Propyläen Kunstgeschichte Series reprinted in 1985. For a long time, he says, it was customary to ascribe special meanings to folk-art ornaments, which were turned into symbols by some scholars who drew their efficacy from a supposed continuity of faith and practice that once existed in the far-distant, pre-Christian past. The designs included multirayed stars, rosettes, and whirling rosettes—all based on the circle. These were called “sun symbols” and were brought into connection with a prehistoric cult of the sun. Hence, these forms of decoration based on the circle, found on buildings, furniture, and small objects, were regarded as “witnesses of a supposed arcane knowledge that had come down from ancient times.”
“The fact is, however,” Deneke continues, “that such explanations . . . , so far as can be seen, were nowhere recorded as oral traditions by the producers and users of the objects themselves.” Rather, it appears evident that these “elements of decoration satisfy formal requirements, that they grew out of a play instinct related to form, and proved themselves useful for furnishing proofs of dexterity and skill.” Here and elsewhere in his writings he makes the useful suggestion that such geometric designs enclosed in circles were marks associated with the building trades, applied to objects by carpenters, stone masons, and cabinetmakers.
Since 1945, the end of the Nazi era, German scholars, particularly those who deal with folk culture, have in several important conferences debated the influences of the Nazi regime and its ideology upon German scholarship. The most recent of these conferences was held at Karlsruhe in Baden-Württemberg, September 25-29, 1995, and was devoted to symbols and symbol research. In the conference volume edited by Rolf Wilhelm Brednich and Heinz Schmitt, Symbole: Zur Bedeutung der Zeichen in der Kultur (Münster, 1997), the symbol controversy is thoroughly discussed, particularly in a paper by Brednich, entitled “Germanische Sinnbilder und ihre vermeintliche Kontinuität: Eine Bilanz” (“Germanic Symbols and Their Supposed Continuity: A Balance”). The story is not over, however, since Brednich reports that Germanic runology and symbology are still alive and well, as evidenced by books and pamphlets for sale in rightist bookstores in Berlin, Paris, and elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the Germanic theories propounded by Europeans on the meaning of the symbols produced fallout in the United States. Certain Pennsylvania Dutch scholars, among them Edwin M. Fogel (1874-1949) of the University of Pennsylvania and his student Preston A. Barba (1883-1971) of Muhlenberg College, both founders of the Pennsylvania German Folklore Society in 1936—a new, hostile opposition group to the older Pennsylvania German Society founded in 1891—showed in some of their writings that they were aware of the German theories. That they actually favored some of the explanations is clear from the dialect address Professor Barba delivered at the Berks County Fersammling (an annual meeting held completely in Pennsylvania Dutch dialect) at Reading on April 2, 1948. His address, entitled Unser Scheiere (“Our Barns”), begins by saying that outsiders visiting Pennsylvania sometimes call the barn signs Hexefiess—”witches’ feet.” The present Pennsylvania Dutch generation, however, doesn’t have an explanation for them. An old Weisenberg farmer Barba talked to outside the farmer’s beautifully decorated barn said they were yuscht fer schee, “just for nice.” But Barba ascribed meanings to them beyond decoration. Significant parts of his argument can be translated as follows:
Yes, our forefathers brought them along across the ocean. Here in the New World the signs were like links in a long chain that bound them to the past. These signs are found not only in the Palatinate. They are especially found in north Germany. Up there in the dark, cold Northland, for those early men, the sun was a divine thing. What would mankind be without the sun? Without the sun there would be no life on this earth! Behind the sun there was that almighty power that has creating everything, the Lord God—incomprehensible to us human beings. And for those early men in the Northland, the sun was indeed the best proof of that divine power. The sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. The sun also makes its yearly circuit. In the winter it makes just a little bow [arch] in the heavens, it descends lower and lower, and up there in the Northland it disappears completely—then come again those holy nights in December, and the sun climbs higher in the heavens; it begins its new circuit. A new year begins—with new hope in the heart of mankind. It is spring again; the sun turns higher and higher—everything becomes alive—summer arrives—the grain and the fruit are ripe. The harvest is past—we move toward fall—and here comes another winter. The sun makes a circle—its annual course is a circle.
He goes on to draw the parallel of life as a circle as well. The individual moves from birth to death, with children and grandchildren continuing the circle. And then he comes to the hex signs.
How proud must that first man have been, when for the first time . . . he drew a circle, like a wheel, and further divided that wheel until he had discovered the six-pointed star. And how could he have better portrayed the sun and its yearly circuit than with a wheel with four spokes—for spring, summer, fall, and winter. And how better could he have shown how the sun turns through the year than with a whirling swastika in a circle. [Here he uses the
unfortunateterm Hokegreiz, a twentieth-century Pennsylvania Dutch coinage for the Hakenkreuz, or swastika.]
He continues more and more in a sermonic vein. “Yes, sun signs in those early times were highly esteemed. With their silent language, mankind slowly made its long, long way to the Eternal Light.” He admits that what was accounted “religion” to early man often later became “superstition.” He concludes as follows:
Today we have little understanding of such things, and yet we should hold the old signs in honor because our forefathers honored them and viewed them with respect as holy signs. No, they were not yuscht fer schee [“just for nice”]. These signs were necessary to them, growing out of their hearts. And it would not hurt if we too would today view those old signs for what they were once in earlier times—signs of that mighty power that slumbers in winter, awakens in the springtime, and brings new life to nature, ripens the grain and the fruit in summer—and then goes to sleep again in the winter, in an everlasting circle or ring which is again the most beautiful evidence in nature of our Lord God. And whoever does view them in this way must agree that the painted stars on our barns are pure prayers. But HEX-FEET? No!—No!—Phooey on that idea! That we can let other and more stupid people believe.
The solid contribution of scholars like Edwin Fogel and Preston Barba to Pennsylvania Dutch linguistics and cultural history far outshine their yielding to symbolist interpretations of hex signs. At least their infection with the continuity ideas was mild. They were certainly free of the racialist bias that stained the work of European symbolists, and they did not insist on the radical sun-symbolism of European scholarship.
Barba’s “sermon” on hex signs does
, however, reveal, in its curious emphasis on the “Northland,” a derivation from the European Germanic continuity writers who found “pure” Germanic traits among the “Nordic” cultures of Scandinavia. After all, they did give us the Yule tradition, which Barba refers to as “those holy nights in December.”
The Hex Sign as Ethnic Symbolism
Another theory proposed by scholars to explain the meaning of Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs treats the subject from the development of ethnic identity. This is the most recent of all the theories about the hex sign, yet as more and more scholars sift through the historical evidence, it seems increasingly plausible. The Pennsylvania Dutch, like all ethnic groups positioning themselves in relation to their American neighbors, developed symbols to denote their ethnic identity. Badges of ethnic identity are useful to outsiders because they enable quick recognition of what is or is not Pennsylvania Dutch. Equally, these same symbols minister to the Dutch themselves, giving them recognizable projections of their own inner spirit—that is, a key to who they are as a people.
Like every other aspect of ethnicity, such ethnic symbols are often complex in meaning. Ethnic identity involves both personal identity—one’s sense of kinship to one’s group—and group identity. On the side of personal identity, the farmer who handsomely decorated his barn with hex signs does so because he is proud of his farm and well-kept buildings. The farmer’s individual pride and sense of worth shade over into his sense of group belonging. For him, the hex signs become the symbols of his Pennsylvania Dutchness—of his ethnic group and his sense of belonging to it.
Viewed historically, the hex-sign phenomenon may indeed be connected with the sharpening of Pennsylvania Dutch ethnic consciousness in reaction to nineteenth-century cultural tensions. The Civil War was especially difficult for the Pennsylvania Dutch. The plain sects were confronted with the dilemma of pacifism, and nonpacifist Pennsylvania Dutch often found themselves fighting opposite people of German ancestry, especially in the Valley of Virginia. The midcentury also witnessed attempts by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to rid the Pennsylvania Dutch of their distinctive culture, using the state school system to mount a systematic stamping out of the German language.
The diverse groups making up the Pennsylvania Dutch community reacted to these stresses in their own ways. The plain sects codified plainer forms of contemporary fashion into a sectarian uniform. This plain code is still with us today. About the same time, the church groups began painting hex signs on their barns and incorporated Pennsylvania Dutch motifs in the Victorian architectural gingerbread on their houses. Both Pennsylvania Dutch groups thus made public statements about their cultural affiliations. As attention has changed in this century from national groups to ethnic groups, the Pennsylvania Dutch decorative motifs have, in the fullest sense, become “ethnicity markers.”
The symbols of the Pennsylvania Dutchman’s sense of belonging, as with other ethnic groups, include a range of artifacts, customs, and expressions. In the early twentieth century, in addition to the farmers with their painted barns, a school of literary spokesmen arose for the culture in the form of Pennsylvania novelists. Foremost among these were Helen Reimensnyder Martin, Elsie Singmaster, Georg Schoch, and Nelson Lloyd—all Pennsylvanians of dyed-in-the-wool Pennsylvania Dutch stock. In wrestling with the question of how to portray Pennsylvania Dutchness in fictional form, these local writers—whose efforts coincided with the general flowering of regional fiction—put together a kit of ready-made ethnic symbols, which included the hex sign.
In their attempt to give local color to their settings, novelists of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country sprinkled their stories with props from the culture: witches and powwowers, stern fathers, austere plain sectarians, a whole gallery of shrewd Dutch farmers, and their even shrewder wives. In expressing their “Dutchness,” characters often used Dutch-English dialect. Their creators even put together what has since become the culinary canon of accepted Pennsylvania Dutch folk foods, and—what concerns us most directly—they described the decorations on the Dutchman’s barn for readers across the nation.
One of the earliest examples of this trend toward ethnic identification with barn decorations appeared in “Among the Dunkers,” by Nelson Lloyd, published in Scribner’s Magazine for November 1901. After describing the differences between the various plain sects, Lloyd concentrates on describing a Dunker love feast that he claimed to have attended in a barn in the Lebanon Valley. The barn was “one of those great white structures with green shutters, that so distinctly mark our Pennsylvania landscape.” Hex signs are not mentioned specifically, but the article illustration showing the barn where the meetings are held sports a high, supported forebay with a row of six beautifully drawn hex signs.
Like much of the later tourist literature about the Dutch, Nelson Lloyd’s article contained some indisputable historical facts, along with a great many misconceptions. The Dunkers, like the Mennonites and Amish, do not today normally allow hex signs on their barns. Did any of them slip past the strictures of their bishops in 1900? We cannot answer that right now. But we note Lloyd’s fictional account of the Amish “blue gate”—the earliest known reference to it in literature. He related that “not all in the valley are going to Dunker preaching.” Some are going to the “Mennonite bush-meeting,” or the River Brethren services,
or to the white farm-house with the gates of blue. Within those blue gates the Amish are to worship, and, if their ancient custom had its inception in truth, one could not choose a better place, for it has been hallowed by the visit of many a passing angel, who, marking the heavenly hue of the entrance, has stepped aside to bless the home there.
According to current tourist literature, the Amish paint their gates blue when a daughter comes of marriageable age.
Georg Schoch’s “The Christmas Child,” in Harper’s Monthly Magazine” for April 1906, also brings in barn decorations. In it, a farmer’s wife ventures into the barn at midnight on Christmas Eve to hear the animals talk, with unexpected results. The novelist describes a great “Swiss barn” (as the Pennsylvania Dutch barn was called into the 1950s) with “its red front, painted with moons and stars.” It “looked patriarchal; it had its own pastoral and dignified associations.”
Elsie Singmaster’s classic short story, “Big Thursday,” perhaps one of her best, deals with the Great Allentown Fair and its place in the hearts of the Pennsylvania Dutch. It appeared in the January 1906 issue of Century Magazine. The illustration by Leon Guipon shows a Pennsylvania landscape featuring a barn decorated with three huge hex signs—a barn typical, in fact, of those found near Allentown.
What these literary offerings accomplish with their illustrations is a mood of “Dutchness.” By its very presence, subtle or express, the hex sign is meant to convey a certain psychological impact.
Subtle, but ever present, this theme of ethnicity and symbol was carried forward in the 1920s by one of Pennsylvania’s most influential regional authors. Indeed, the tourist mecca that Southeastern Pennsylvania has become today is due in part to the nostalgic and pleasant discovery of “things Pennsylvania Dutch” by Cornelius Weygandt (1871-1957). His books The Red Hills (1929), The Blue Hills (1936), and The Dutch Country (1939) have become minor classics of American regional literature. Weygandt was himself a Pennsylvania Dutchman who spent a long career as professor of English literature at the University of Pennsylvania. An avid collector of country antiques, he roamed the Dutch counties summer and winter absorbing local flavor and writing charming essays about his discoveries.
It was Professor Weygandt and his books, more than any single source, that developed the Wallace Nutting view of hex signs. In one of the essays in The Red Hills, Weygandt described his own feelings about being caught in a Pennsylvania barn during a violent thunderstorm:
Were there not symbols on the barn? They would keep the lightning away. The barn had stood there a hundred years on the open hilltop, with no lightning rods and no high trees nearer than the pines before the house a hundred yards away. Six-lobed the symbols were, in weathered lead that was still strikingly white against the ironstone red of the wooden front. Six-lobed they were, within their circle of four-foot diameter, the six petals of the conventionalized tulip that is the sign manual of all good things in our folk culture. They were on the south side of the barn, and only four of them, not the miraculous seven that keep away all harm. Yet they had kept away the lightning for a hundred years, and they were, no doubt, still potent, as sure in their efficacy as anything in life may be.
Expert that he was in Pennsylvania Dutch folk art, Weygandt even discovered, long before John Joseph Stoudt, the connection between the tulips on fraktur and the six-lobed design in use as a barn symbol.
Barn symbols are prevalent in many parts of “Dutch” Pennsylvania. They come down close to Philadelphia, but they grow less plenty as you cross the Susquehanna, until in Franklin County, where are so many “Dutch” things else of fine quality, they are far to seek. The symbols are supposed to keep lightning from striking the barn that has them painted on its wooden sides, and to prevent the animals housed in the barn from being bewitched, or ferhexed as we say in the vernacular.
Weygandt was of the opinion (again before Stoudt) that some of the barn designs had their origin in Rosicrucian symbolism, while others were related to the Wheel of Fortune, the Four-leaf Clover, and the Pomegranate.
The final word in the scholars’ war over the meaning of hex signs has obviously not been uttered. Because theories are continuing to develop, to push out in new directions, attracting new meanings in the process, hex signs are worthy of further study.
Source: Don Yoder & Thomas E. Graves’ Hex Signs: Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Symbols & Their Meaning (Revised & Expanded 2nd Edition)
For the most comprehensive, convincing, and up-to-date research on Pennsylvania Dutch barn stars, see Patrick Donmoyer’s Hex Signs: Myth and Meaning in Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Stars* (foreword by Dr. Don Yoder).
*This link is to the book’s publisher, Masthof, and is available for $30. It can be purchased for the same price from the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center (Kutztown University) or from Amazon for $40.