The word “hex” brings about a variety of negative images: witches, curses, and evil chief among them. However, in Pennsylvania Dutch Country (an area of Southeastern and South Central Pennsylvania where many Dutch immigrants settled after the American Revolution) hex signs are historically significant, cultural symbols of their German ancestry.
Encouraged by the religious freedom being offered by William Penn, many settlers from the Rhine area of Germany came to America to start new lives — these included the Amish, Mennonites, Lutherans, and other reformed groups. Like many immigrants, they brought their culture with them: dress, language, traditions, and art (such as the mystical bird and floral designs that graced their birth and marriage certificates, family Bibles, quilts, and some furniture) made the long journey to take root in American soil.
Many farmers decorated their barns with colorful, geometric, patterns — the most popular of which was the six-pointed star. Each design possessed its own meaning, or described a legend: the use of orange encourages abundance, the extensively used “Daddy Hex” supports good luck all year, and distelfinks (the Pennsylvania Dutch word for goldfinches) conjure love and happiness in marriage.
Some dispute that the German word for six (“sechs”) sounded like hex to these farmers’ English-speaking neighbors, while others think the name came from the Pennsylvania German word “hexafoo” which means “witch’s foot.” Either way, the new name was born. Unfortunately, the detail involved in their creation was laborious — each one was delicately and painstakingly hand-painted which limited their use.
It wasn’t until the 1940s when an 11th generation Pennsylvania Dutchman named Jacob Zook invented “silk screening” to streamline the production process that they become readily available and therefore increased in popularity. Although 100% hand-crafted Amish furniture takes the cake when it comes to associations with that region of Pennsylvania, hex signs are impossible to avoid: they dot homes and barns across the whole of Pennsylvania Dutch Country in beautiful displays of cultural heritage.
These days, hex signs are as recognizable as Amish quilts; proudly displayed on barns and homes across the Pennsylvania Dutch region, a trip to Lancaster or Paradise, PA is sure to bring an up-close and personal view of these intricate signs. And, since those who live within a five-mile radius of such signs will see them 50 to 60 times a month, they will constantly be reminded of their colorful history.