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Folk Magic: The Hex Signs of Pennsylvania

In 1952, a Berks County folk artist named Johnny Ott started painting and selling colorful, stylized discs inspired by the large, decorative stars that commonly adorned the barns across Pennsylvania German Country (still colloquially known as Pennsylvania Dutch Country). Unlike barn stars, which were painted directly on the sides of structures, the wooden hex signs, a term likely derived from the Pennsylvania German word “hexafoo” or “witch’s foot,” could be ported around and hung not just on barns, but anywhere. Ott marketed hex signs as objects of folk magic, ascribing specific meaning and power to the symbolism on the signs.

If you believe in that kind of thing, four- and five-pointed stars conjure good luck. Eight-pointed stars conjure fertility or abundance. Two distelfinks — the Pennsylvania German word for goldfinches — conjure love and happiness in marriage. Sixteen points bring prosperity. A bird of paradise means welcome. The rosettes and stars of a “Daddy Hex” ward off famine. Oaks and acorns bring strength.

Keep reading for so much more magic: Hex Signs of Pennsylvania, on Atlas Obscura!