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Pennsylvania Dutch folkart

Updated: Jan 31, 2019

As you may know, the Pennsylvania Dutch were not actually of Dutch descent. They were German-speaking settlers who immigrated from southwestern Germany in the late 17th century, and settled mostly in southeastern Pennsylvania. Various dialects of the German language were spoken by one-third of the people living in Pennsylvania and collectively their language became a dialect of it's own - Pennsylvania Deutsch, meaning Pennsylvania German. It wasn't until World War II that usage of the language deteriorated. Today only some Old Order Mennonite and Amish still use the language.

Vorschrift (Fraktur)

Hex signs, another form of Pennsylvania Dutch folkart, derive from frakturs. These are seen on many barns in Pennsylvania to this day. The tradition of painting these symbols on barns didn't start until the mid 1800's, but the Pennsylvania Dutch decorated many other items with the same symbols long before then, each one an expression of good morals and ideals, and essentially ethnic identity. Tulips symbolize hope and faith, doves symbolize peace and contentment, a pineapple symbolizes warmth and hospitality, the unicorn symbolizes piety, and the heart symbolizes the obvious, love. These are the most commonly used symbols, but there are many more.

Wilkom Hex Sign

In the hex sign shown here, a distelfink (bird) symbolizes happiness. The star surrounding the object is a sign of good will to all, and it isn't hard to figure out that "Wilkom" is the Pennsylvania Dutch word for "Welcome". Notice the fraktur style of writing?

Some people claim there are mystical properties associated with hex signs, which is most likely how the word "hex", meaning "a curse" in German, came to represent these signs. The distelfink was/is believed to bring good fortune, the horse head symbol prevents disease in animals, and the mighty oak symbol brings good health and longevity, just to name a few.

For more information about Frakturs, check out these books:

Hexology, The History and Meanings of Hex Symbols, by Jacob Zook, 1962. (Zook is the artist of the two signs pictured at right, and possibly "Wilkom" above).

Hex Signs, Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Symbols and their Meaning, by Don Yoder and Thomas Graves, 2000.

Fraktur; Fork Art & Family, by Corinne and Russell Earnest, 1999.


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