The term "Amish star" suggests a single design or symbol from Amish culture. That misconception is fueled by a number of influences, including a tendency to regard "Amish" and "Pennsylvania Dutch" as interchangeable. To explore the mystery of the Amish star's meaning, interested history detectives have to start with the German immigrants who arrived in southeastern Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century.
In the period before the start of the American Revolution in 1775, large groups seeking religious freedom immigrated to Pennsylvania from the Rhine Valley region of Europe. These groups included Lutherans and Reformed Church members, Moravians, the Amish and Mennonites, all of whom spoke German. English Colonists referred to them collectively as "Deutsch," the word for German in the immigrants' dialect. Over time, the common term for the entire immigrant group became "Pennsylvania Dutch." Grouped under the Pennsylvania Dutch name, the Amish and Mennonite differed in many ways from the non-Amish. The former were known as "plain people" because of their strict religious beliefs and austere dress. The more worldly non-Amish were known as "fancy people." They didn't share their plain neighbors' rejection of color and decoration and introduced their own folk art style to the Pennsylvania landscape.
Barn stars, later called "hex signs," reflected this folk art style. Hex signs are defined as "geometrical decorations in the form of large stars of various formats" in the book "Hex Signs: Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Symbols and Their Meanings" by Don Yoder and Thomas E. Graves. Even scholars continue to debate the origin of the name "hex sign." Some think it comes from "hex," which means "witch" in German. Others believe it goes back to "sexerei" and "sechsafoos" (six-pointed stars) and that the latter term was mistaken for "hexefuss," which means "witch's foot." From the 1920s to the 1950s, travel writers and those who catered to the Pennsylvania Dutch tourist trade contributed to an ever-growing body of hex sign lore.
Marketing drove the misconception that the Amish and the Pennsylvania Dutch were one group with the same values and characteristics. Area merchants and commercial folk artists deliberately merged hex signs and the Amish in the public's mind to give the signs added appeal and mystique. But the stars were not a product of the Amish and would rarely be found on their farmsteads, says the American Folklife Institute's website.
Experts disagree on the symbolism of the original barn stars. Folk art tradition suggests stars represent good fortune, love, hope, harmony, energy, fertility and protection from fires. Colors had significance as well, such as black for protection or the binding of elements; blue for peace, spirituality and protection; green for growth, fertility and success; and white for purity. A familiar icon in barn stars was the eight-pointed star, which symbolized abundance and goodwill.
The same eight-pointed star appears in a traditional quilt block called the "Amish Star." However, there's no historical evidence that the Amish originated this pattern, although it appears in Amish-made quilts. There's also a staple of contemporary rustic decor often advertised by retailers as an "Amish Barn Star." Sometimes produced by Amish craftsmen, the five-pointed star turns up on interior and exterior walls in both urban and rural settings. Possibly a throwback to the original barn stars, these modern stars have no connection to the Amish culture and no particular meaning. They're simply decorative.
- American Folklife Institute: The Americanism: Pennsylvania Dutch
- The Washington Post: Demystifying Hex Signs, the Colorful Soul of Pennsylvania Dutch Decor
- "Hex Signs: Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Symbols and Their Meanings"; Don Yoder and Thomas E. Graves; 2000
- New York Times: For the Pennsylvania Dutch, a Long Tradition Fades
- Pennlive.com: Pennsylvania Man Spends a Year Documenting Folk Art on Barns
- spramp/iStock/Getty Images