When early Swedish and German Dutch settlers first came to Pennsylvania in the 17th century, they brought with them a rich cultural tradition of creating Hex Signs to commemorate special life events. Dutch Hex Signs can be seen painted on barns, sheds, and displayed across many homes in the northeast and the southern United States.
While the original meaning and purpose of the signs are open to interpretation, this has not affected their popularity over the centuries. The signs have become so popular that they are now a major tourist attraction in Pennsylvania. Very few decorative items hold such significant meaning with so much cultural heritage, so their value is still very much on the rise as time passes.
I have been studying the signs and the meanings for years and I still feel like I have only scratched the surface when it comes to creating custom signs and interpreting existing signs for their implied meaning. Information is often fragmented, abstract, and very much open to interpretation so I have been working diligently to create a style guide for traditional dutch hex signs. I would love to see these signs get a makeover for more modern aesthetics because they make wonderful gifts and heirloom quality keepsakes. With all of the advances in color printing technology today, there isn’t any reason why the tradition could not continue for centuries to come.
Implied meaning of symbols.
Many of the shapes and symbols here have been used for symbolic purposes across a wide variety of cultures and religions throughout human history. I have tried to relay the meaning implied by the Pennsylvania Fancy Dutch, which is rooted in the Christian faith. Independent research into the meaning of the older symbols, especially those of stars, will turn up some very questionable material pertaining to the occult. The important thing to keep in mind is the context in which these symbols are being used.
Fancy Dutch vs. Plain Dutch
Also, it is important to differentiate between “Fancy Dutch” and “Plain Dutch” as the communities are not synonymous. The Amish and Mennonite communities are considered “Plain Dutch” and did not participate in hexology as early “Fancy Dutch” settlers did. From what I have read, the Amish really don’t like being asked about Hex signs, so please approach the communities respectfully if you are touring popular Hex sign tourism routes.
Fancy Dutch groups for the most part have assimilated into other groups in the United States. Some Fancy Dutch communities are still thriving in the rural parts of Pennsylvania including; Reading, Allentown, York, and Lebanon.
Hex Signs are not the same as Barn Quilts.
Dutch Hex signs are always shown in a circular format or painted on circle plaques. In the last 20 years, there has been a rise in a similar art style: Barn Quilts. While the art style and symbolism is similar, it should not be confused with any affiliation to hex signs. Barn quilts originated in Ohio in 2001. This tradition is spreading rapidly and though I don’t have any evidence to support the theory, I believe the established popularity of hex signs may be the reason it has so quickly spread.
Colors are a subtle way to add additional symbolism and variance to traditional hex designs. 9 colors are predominately used and each color has a different symbolic meaning:
Black: Protection, Blends & Binds Elements Together
Blue: Protection, Peace, Spirituality, Calm
Brown: Earth, Friendship, Strength
Green: Growth, Fertility, Success, Ideas
Red: Emotions, Passion, Charisma, Lust, Creativity
Purple: Royalty, All Things Sacred, Religion
White: Purity, Moon Power, Free Flowing Energy
Yellow: Health, Love, Sun, Connection To God
Birds: See “Birds” Section Below
Hereford Cow: The Hereford cow protects farm animals and pets. The Hereford also highlights the important role that food and food animals play in our lives.
Horse: Ensures protection for farm animals and pets. Protects against disease and lightning. Commonly placed in 5 point or 8 Pointed Stars. Original livestock hexes and barn blessings used horses as the horse played a major role in early farm life of the Pennsylvania Dutch settlers.
Lambs: Represents children. Commonly used in “Bless This Child” hex signs with child’s name enclosed in a heart. Lambs can also symbolize wonder and innocence. Lambs are commonly painted on hex signs with distelfinks (luck), tulips (faith, hope, charity), and a heart border to represent everlasting love.
Snakes: Represents temptation. Commonly shown in proximity to trinity tulips on marriage hexes.
Unicorn: The mythological white unicorn had a horn and a lion’s tail. Unicorns symbolize piety and virtue on Dutch Hex Signs. Placing unicorns close to each other on the sign is designed to show how all of God’s creature’s, even “wild animals”, can live in peace and harmony.
Unicorn signs are often decorated with hearts and trinity tulips. Unicorns are commonly shown facing each other. Overall this design represents piety, virtue, peace, and contentment. It is often designed to place on hope chests of young women. This unconquerable animal was also believed to become tame when confronted by a maiden. He would lay his head in her lap and was easily taken by hunter.
Bird of Paradise: Symbolizes beauty, wonder, and mystery of life on earth.
Distelfink: Symbolizes good luck and happiness. The distelfink was a bird that ate thistle seed and thus called the “Thistlefinch”. The Pennsylvania Dutch referred to it as a “Distelfink”. It is a stylized version of the common gold finch, though some believe its features are more heavily borrowed from European varieties of gold finches.
Using 2 distelfinks together on a hex represents “double good luck.” Depicting 2 Distelfinks crossed over each other or intertwined means “true friendship”.
Doves: Doves represent friendship and peace in marriage. Referred to as the “Doves of Peace”. When doves are shown turned away from each other, this is also said to represent peace and trust in marriage.
Eagles: Eagles symbolize strength, courage, and protection. Double headed eagles are also commonly used in marriage signs. Double headed eagles are paired with laced or scalloped hearts to represent Strength and Courage in marriage. Eagles may also be paired with trinity tulips to represent faith, hope, and charity.
Some rare and older hexes depict a more Germanic Double Headed Eagle seen in German heraldry as well as versions akin to the “Albanian Eagle”.
Roosters: Like the eagle, roosters also symbolize strength, courage, and protection.
Leaves: Leaves represent long life, strength, and nature. Maple and oak leaves are the most common leaves shown on Dutch hex signs and are often embellished with acorns as well. Leaves can also represent diversity and beauty of life on earth.
The oak leaf seems to carry heavier symbolic weight than the maple leaf. Oak leaves are also used to symbolize strength in body, mind, and character. Can also symbolize smooth sailing in autumn years of life or the representation of strength of masculinity.
Pineapple: Represents warmth and hospitality for all. The pineapple is often used in Welcome signs and home blessings.
Pomegranate: A rare symbol used to symbolize abundance and fertility (due to the number of seeds it contains).
Shamrock: Represents luck and the “luck of the Irish”.
Tree of Life: A different kind of hex sign that uses a tree with many branches containing different symbols. The symbols on tree represent God’s bountiful fruit. The symbols inside circles on tree are hearts, tulips, rosettes, stars, and similar geometric designs.
Tulips: Tulips represent faith, hope, and charity, and can also be used to represent Holy Trinity. Tulips are frequently shown in multiples of 3 and are shown to represent a form of a lily. Another implied and eloquent meaning can include: “Faith in yourself, faith in what you do, and faith in your fellow man.”
Sometimes, a snake is shown on or around a trinity tulip in marriage signs to serve as a warning to resist temptation.
Wheat: Wheat stencils represent abundance. Signs depicting wheat are not as popular as other motifs, but can still be easily found.
Stars generally representluck and protection.
Please note I had a difficult time finding the specific meaning of the points on stars (4 point-12 point) from any documented Dutch hexology material, so I had to research the symbolism of stars by relying heavily on accepted numerology in the Christian faith.
4 Point Star: The Morning Star,The Christian Cross, Star of Bethlehem. Native Americans also believed the morning star is a sign of courage and purity of spirit.
5 Point Star: Good Luck, Compass, Nautical Star
6 Point Star “Hexagram”: 6 Days of Creation, or the 6 attributes of God (Wisdom, Power, Majesty, Love, Mercy, and Justice)
8 Point Star: Star of Redemption or Regeneration. Represents baptism in Christian faith.
10 Point Star: Harmony in natural kingdom, Spiritual well being. Could also represent 10 of the 12 apostles. (Judas is omitted due to his betrayal of Jesus and Peter is omitted because of his denial of Jesus.)
12 Point Star: Represents completeness. Also used to represent the Epiphany (12th Day of Christmas)
Triple Star Motif: Good Luck, Success, and Happiness. This motif is comprised of 3 nautical 5 point stars that are layered and rotated to reveal all points of all stars. When a brown outer ring is used, it symbolizes the cycle of the life making this particular sign a wish for a lifetime of happiness.
Barn Wheel: Wheel of Fortune, most common with 32 spokes and often accompanied with a lucky star in the center.
Crescent Moons: Shown in a swirl pattern to represent the 4 Seasons.
Daddy Hex: One of the most popular hex signs used to bring “Good Luck All Year”. Adding a rosette in center circle is for an added measure of good luck during difficult times of the year.
Haus Segen: “Home Blessing” in German.
Hearts: Hearts represent love. When used in circle border it signifies “endless” love. Scalloped, laced, or intertwined hearts represent marriage.
Irish Symbolism: 2 distinct Irish symbols are commonly seen on Dutch Hex signs.Shamrocks are seen for luck and the Claddagh Ring is shown to represent love, loyalty, and friendship.
Raindrops: Represents water and crop abundance. Raindrops are depicted in a paisley shape and can be large or small.
Rosettes (Oldest Symbol): Good Luck. Six Petal rosette is most common. Red hearts are commonly placed between rosette’s blue, red, and gold petals to ensure luck in love. 12 point rosettes represent good luck all year. Red is used to symbolize strength and green for life. Enclosed in scalloped border and means “Good Luck In Life”. Wards off evil, disease, and pestilence
The rosette is one of the most basic and most ancient designs in western culture. The rosette appears on buildings, furniture, graves, and pottery dating all the way back to the Egyptians.
Scallops: Representocean waves and “Smooth Sailing Through Life”.
Swastika: Symbolizes good fortune and well being. Hitler has tainted the well meaning symbolism of the swastika in modern times, but I’m sure it will far outlast Hitler’s reign of terror.
Swastiaks can be seen in “Sun Wheel” designs and may also be called “Swirling Ray Swastikas”. Sun wheels are somewhat of a stylizied swastika and represents warmth and fertility.
Swirling ray swastika motifs are rare. When they are used, modern signs are not commonly depicted with more than 4 rays. It is believed that 5 and 6 ray swastikas were once much more common.
Sun, Rain, & Fertility Motif: This motif is an 8 Pointed star with sun center. It has a substantial meaning: “Sun warms mother earth and lights our lives. Raindrops are shown in an endless circle, providing unending moisture critical to life. Together they provide all God’s people with a bountiful harvest and renewed life. This design offers abundance in field, barn, and home.”
Wilkommen / Wilkom– Two different way to say welcome in Dutch. Used for signs to display warm greetings to one and all.
When hand painting or creating a digital rendering of a hex sign with traditional Dutch features, using appropriate lettering can add additional authenticity to the design. Early Dutch settlers used Fraktur, which is a type of blackletter calligraphy deeply steeped in European folk cultures. It is very similar to old english fonts, but has a very distinct style. Comparing fraktur to old english side by side, fraktur seems to contain more solid lines and less filigree details. Dafont has a great selection of free blackletter fonts to experiment with on your own signs. My personal favorites to use when making hex signs are Augusta and Perry Gothic.
This style guide will be continuously updated and revised as new information is found.
Very few things in modern times are as meaningful or as steeped in history as the Dutch hex sign. As time passes and the world changes, I would love for the long legacy of these signs to continue to grow and change with us. Humans, despite how advanced we like to think we are, will always find comfort and contentment in symbols that conjure luck and happiness in a chaotic world. The human connection to abstract symbols may be one of the very few ways we can maintain a sense of wonder about the beautiful world around us. I don’t believe that these signs or any other talisman has mystical powers or the ability to change the course of my life. I do believe that the signs are meant to inspire love, hope, happiness, and compassion in ourselves and to those we care about the most. That, my friends, is a beautiful message and is as relevant today as it was when the first Dutch settlers came to this country full of hope and wonder.