The Pennsylvania Dutch have a long tradition of incorporating art into their everyday lives. Since their arrival in America, they spread out over the vast farmland of the Mid Atlantic region. Berks County, Pennsylvania has been a gathering place for this group of people. The traditional designs which became the basis for barnstars and hexsigns are rooted in the Fraktur designs of the official documents and certificates in use by the Dutch.
Barnstars, painted directly on the sides or gables of barns, date back nearly 200 years. The earliest barnstar I have found in this area is dated 1819. It is built into the stone featuring a star design, the date and the initials of the original owners.
Around the end of the American Civil War, barnstars became more prevalent. Painting barns had become more common because the cost of paint had decreased with the advent of mechanized pigment grinding. Many of those early barns still stand today with a ghost of the original barnstar etched in the wood. The different colors of paint had different weathering characteristics and the unpainted wood eroded with wind and rain even more. In our research we have found nearly forty barns with gable end barnstars and some on stone houses with star designs. Most were found in Berks, but others were found as far away as Lehigh, Montgomery and Bucks counties.
The exact meaning of these symbols is a subject of much debate. Over the decades, as the art form was passed down from generation to generation, the interpretations changed according to the times. The designs usually consisted of a star with 5,6,7,8,9,12 or 16 points. Each had a special meaning. The 5 point start is supposed to bring good luck. The 6 point star has origins in the Star of David. The 8 point star is associated with marriage and fertility, extending to the farm and crops. The 12 point star represents the 12 apostles, and the 16 point star represents prosperity. Many newer elements have been added such as hearts, birds, tulips, butterflies and rosettes. Each was added to bring a new idea of good luck.
Hexsigns came into existence in the 1940’s as a way to make the barnstar a more portable art form. The designs, ranging in size from 8 inches to 4 feet in diameter, are painted on a wooden disk, and can be hung anywhere, indoor or outdoor.
The term “hexsign” is derived from the Pennsylvania Dutch word “hexafoos” which means “witches foot”. The term was coined in 1923 by Wallace Nutting. While traveling throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania, he became curious about the mysterious signs painted on barns in the area. Being an “Auslander” or foreigner, the local farmers weren’t interested in telling their secrets. So Nutting decided to fill in the blanks and give these interesting symbols a name of his choosing. Superstitions began to arise after this and have made the hexsign a fun part of the Pennsylvania Dutch folklore.
Milton Hill of Virginville, PA was one of the early barnstar painters beginning in the 1940's through the 1960's. He is noted as the first commercial hexsign painter at the Kutztown PA German Festival. He coined the phrase that hexsigns are “chust (just) for nice”, meaning just for decorative purposes. Milton was a very talented painter, originating a spinning effect in the barnstar, symbolizing a person “spinning through time”.
There are several tours available for you to see many of these historical examples of folk art at work. I would like to thank Bob Emsminger, Dave Fooks, Greg Huber, and Patrick Donmoyer for their assistance in researching these historical landmarks.