How Quirky is Berkeley? The story behind hex signs

Postcard from the collection of Tom Dalzell
Postcard from the collection of Tom Dalzell

Hex signs are a form of folk art indigenous to southeastern Pennsylvania. German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the 17th and 18th centuries became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. They delineated  themselves as the “fancy Dutch” (mostly Lutherans) and the “plain Dutch” (mostly Old Order Amish).

Hex signs are an artistic expression of the fancy Dutch; the Old Order Amish do not paint hex signs on their barns, and in fact they generally do not paint their barns at all. There are competing theories on the origin of hex signs. One theory holds that they are used as a talisman, warding off evil spirits. This theory is consistent with the use of “hex,” yet the term “hex sign” is not found until an outside travel writer wrote about the paintings in 1924. The second theory is that they are simply decorative, an extension of fraktur, an elaborate style of letter ing and flourish-rich folk art.

Whatever their original intent, hex signs can be found in Berkeley. To date, I have found nine, far fewer than the ubiquitous Buddhist iconography in our front yards, but still a significant number.

Hex sign at 1169 Keeler St. Photo: Tom Dalzell

This design is a classic, the distelfink, or stylized goldfinch.


1194 Cragmont
Hex sign at 1194 Cragmont St. Photo: Tom Dalzell
Hex sign at 1319 Peralta Street.  Photo: Tom Dalzell
Hex sign at 1319 Peralta St. Photo: Tom Dalzell
Hex sign at 1413 Allston Way. Photo: Tom Dalzell
1619 Virginia Street
Hex sign at 1619 Virginia St. Photo: Tom Dalzell
1949 Yosemite
Hex sign at 1949 Yosemite St. Photo: Tom Dalzell

These two on Yosemite Street are quirky several times over. The hex signs are on the side of a front-yard chicken coop, which features a converted gum ball machine that allows people passing by to insert a quarter for chicken feed to drop to the chickens.

2231 10th Street
Hex sign at 2231 Tenth St. Photo: Tom Dalzell
2339 Ward Street
Hex sign at 2339 Ward St. Photo: Tom Dalzell

So there they are, the nine hex signs (so far) of Berkeley.

UPDATE: A reader schooled me on the “hex sign” on San Antonio, pointing out that it was in fact ” a type of Italian compass or sundial showing the eight wind directions. Was purchased at Smith and Hawken some years ago, but it was made in Italy.” I stand corrected and have removed the offending photograph.

Another anonymous reader directed my attention to Perdition, the newly opened barbecue joint on University Avenue.

Hex signs at Perdition, 2050 University Avenue. Photo: John Storey.
Hex signs at Perdition, 2050 University Avenue. Photo: John Storey.

They are in the style of hex signs, not actual hex signs, but in the name of radial symmetry I have included them here.

For a fuller treatment of the Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs of Berkeley, see Quirky Berkeley.

Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,600 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means. This is the twelfth installment in the series.

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