Hex signs the­ory dis­pelled in a pinch (since 1950s)

The Kutztown Area Patriot - - OPINION - Richard L.T. Orth

Dr. Al­fred L. Shoe­maker, cel­e­brated au­thor­ity on Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch hex signs, noted th­ese (hex signs) folk art sym­bols were found lo­cally on Chris­tian made frak­tur birth and bap­tismal cer­tifi­cates (Tauf­scheins). Dr. Don Yoder cited tomb­stones as an area hex signs could also be found on. Itin­er­ant trav­el­ing folk artists spread hex-sign de­sign mo­tifs in Berks, Le­high, and Mont­gomery Coun­ties, where they let­tered and em­bel­lished birth cer­tifi­cates for il­lit­er­ate farm fam­i­lies who wished to please their chil­dren and keep fam­ily records up to date. Folk­lorist Shoe­maker dis­claimed the hex-sign barn myth in his re­search study in Hex, No (1953) among many other pub­li­ca­tions. Also, a noted au­thor­ity on witchcraft and oc­cult prac­tices in the Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch Coun­try, he stoutly (no pun in­tended) avowed there was no ba­sis in fact for this fic­ti­tious hex-sign myth.

Rev­erend John Joseph Stoudt, who lived just out­side Fleet­wood town lim­its, also shot down the no­tion of hex signs as oc­cult tal­is­manic sym­bols to ward away evil. On page 367 in Dr. Stoudt’s clas­sic 1948 book, Penn­syl­va­nia Folk Art, pub­lished by PA Ger­man So­ci­ety wrote: “But th­ese frak­tur folk art de­signs were more a sign of hos­pi­tal­ity to any fel­low Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch trav­eler who spoke the Di­alect and shared th­ese Chris­tian frak­tur bap­tism mo­tifs in a Com­mon­wealth whose English laws and lan­guage were dif­fer­ent from the farmer’s eth­nic roots.”

In the 1950’s, Dr. Shoe­maker dis­cov­ered that some itin­er­ant artists laid out their de­signs ge­o­met­ri­cally us­ing six-pointed stars, or more, in the cor­ners of the “Tauf­scheins” to bal­ance the lay­out. But some artists as famed Frak­tur­ist Krebs drew elab­o­rate de­signs of the sun and moon with the pro­file of a man’s face on th­ese cer­tifi­cates, as well. Folk art sym­bol­isms of a “man in the moon,” or the “sun as a god” pro­vided pres­tige to the in­di­vid­ual’s “Tauf­schein.” The geo­met­ric de­sign of a star also had ma­jor sig­nif­i­cance to early Euro­pean Chris­tians. Hav­ing ul­ti­mate Chris­tian mean­ing, this star de­sign may have led the Three Wise men to Christ’s manger ac­cord­ing to the early Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch folk art scheme. Th­ese itin­er­ant frak­tur artists, who brought color into the lives of hard-work­ing tillers of the soil, may have in­spired the cre­ation of col­or­ful sun­burst-barn star images on farmer’s oth­er­wise drab fore­bay barns, pop­u­larly known as “hex signs.” Thereby, be­com­ing the hy­brid de­sign that cap­tured the im­por­tance and brilliance of the sun to the farmer, over­looked their barn­yards as they did their daily chores, hav­ing noth­ing to do with witchcraft at all!

An­abap­tist Plain Dutch farm­ers of Lan­caster County, on the other hand, who did not be­lieve in in­fant bap­tism, had no need for dec­o­rated Tauf­scheins or to paint sun­bursts or “hex sign” mo­tifs on their barns. There­fore, they were not part of this na­tive folk art prac­tice, hence, hex signs are not found on the Amish barns of Lan­caster and Le­banon Coun­ties. Mainly be­cause th­ese Plain Dutch are An­abap­tists, they do not par­tic­i­pate in in­fant bap­tisms, thus, do not fol­low the frak­tur folk art prac­ticed by the Church Dutch of Berks and Le­high Coun­ties, among oth­ers, where th­ese col­or­ful na­tives had ex­tended their faith and Chris­tian folk art to their barn fore­bays in a cel­e­bra­tion of the Almighty!

En­clos­ing, my thought also is Sun­bursts or hex sign de­signs may have be­come pop­u­lar­ized among em­i­grat­ing Rhinelanders watch­ing the mariner’s com­pass star aboard 18th Cen­tury ships head­ing for Amer­ica. Th­ese eight-pointed com­pass ship stars with black saw tooth tri­an­gles in its cir­cum­fer­ence nav­i­gated sailor’s ex­act di­rec­tions and was very likely an ever­last­ing im­age for im­mi­grants who were in­spired to paint barn stars on their home­steads when they fi­nally ar­rived in good health on the shores of the New World, af­ter a much te­dious voy­age.

Hex signs are preva­lent in many as­pects of Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch cul­ture.

Hex signs are see on many barns in Berks and sur­round­ing coun­ties.

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