Folk Magic: The Hex Signs of Pennsylvania
The artistic tradition of decorating barns with folk symbols began as early as the late 1700s and became even more popular as paint became less and less expensive. The original barn stars were found mostly in Berks County, and also in Lancaster, Montgomery, and Bucks counties, and pre-20th century examples can still be found there today. One of the earliest known examples, located two miles north of Lenhartsville, Pennsylvania, dates back to 1819, though the paint has faded and it’s only left the “ghost” of the design etched in the barn wood.
I think I started noticing people putting up mass-produced decals of stars on their suburban houses around 2005 or so, and when I moved to Pennsylvania I naively assumed that the stars I saw painted on barns driving west toward upstate New Jersey were homegrown versions of whatever that business was about, which I took to be a post-9/11 patriotic reference to the stars on the American flag.
It turns out that what’s going on is a lot more interesting. I really enjoyed reading this article, and I got a hearty chuckle out of the expression “Fancy Dutch,” as in: “Barn stars and hex signs are used by the more secular ‘Fancy Dutch’ community of Pennsylvania Germans, which exists alongside the Amish and Mennonites.”
I’ve been reading a manga called ねこと私とドイッチュランド (Meine Katze und ich in Deutschland), which collects a series of autobiographical comic essays written and drawn by a Japanese woman who recently moved to Germany. I think that, perhaps because Japanese people don’t feel the weight of historical baggage regarding Germany in the same way that many Europeans and Americans do, the artist is completely open and earnest about her uncomplicated love and fascination with German culture. I’m not used to hearing people talk about “German culture” as such, and I’m beginning to realize that a lot of what passes for “generic white people culture” in the United States, from apple pie to chocolate Easter bunnies, is actually distinctly German.
There are a lot of things that most Americans don’t learn about in school regarding their own culture and history, and this infamously includes the culture and history of oppressed and marginalized groups. There’s clearly a lot to be said about this that I’m in no position to say, but I think it’s ironic that the political pressure to create and commodify a monolithic ontological category of Whiteness has resulted in the occlusion of the specific cultures and histories of multiple groups of white people as well.