Hex signs are a form of Pennsylvania Dutch folk art, related to fraktur, found in the Fancy Dutch tradition in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Barn paintings, usually in the form of "stars in circles," grew out of the fraktur and folk art traditions about 1850 when barns first started to be painted in the area. By the 1940s commercialized hex signs, aimed at the tourist market, became popular and these often include stars, compass roses, stylized birds known as distelfinks, hearts, tulips, or a tree of life. Two schools of thought exist on the meaning of hex signs. One school ascribes a talismanic nature to the signs, the other sees them as purely decorative, or "Chust for nice" in the local dialect. Both schools recognize that there are sometimes superstitions associated with certain hex sign themes, and neither ascribes strong magical power to them. The Amish do not use hex signs.
Barn with compass rose hex signs at the historic Mascot Mills in Lancaster County
Painted octagon or hexagon barn stars are a common sight on Pennsylvania Dutch barns in central and eastern Pennsylvania, especially in Berks County, Lancaster County and Lehigh County. However, the modern decoration of barns is a late development in Pennsylvania Dutch folk art. Prior to the 1830s, the cost of paint meant that most barns were unpainted. As paint became affordable, the Pennsylvania Dutch began to decorate their barns much like they decorated items in their homes. Barn decorating reached its peak in the early 20th century, at which time there were many artists who specialized in barn decorating. Drawn from a large repertoire of designs barn painters combined many elements in their decorations. The geometric patterns of quilts can be seen in the patterns of many hex signs. Hearts and tulips seen on barns are commonly found on elaborately lettered and decorated birth, baptism and marriage certificates known as fraktur.
Souvenir shop in Lancaster County selling hex signs
Throughout the 20th century, hex signs were often produced as commodities for the tourist industry in Pennsylvania. These signs could be bought and then mounted onto barns and used as household decorations. Jacob Zook of Paradise, Pennsylvania claimed to have originated the modern mountable sign in 1942, based on traditional designs, to be sold in souvenir gift shops to tourists along the Lincoln Highway. Johnny Ott and Eric and Johnny Claypoole are also considered to have contributed to this hex sign revival or adaptation. Modern artists may stress the symbolic meanings, for example, a horse head is used to protect animals from disease and the building from lightning, and a dove represents peace and contentment. An unusual use is the official logo of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Radiation Protection, which incorporates the international symbol for radiation into its yellow-and-red adaptation of a traditional hex sign design.