Sailboats bob in the Merrimack River just a few yards away, so a visitor to this small shop in Newburyport, Mass., might be forgiven for thinking that the star-shaped wall-hangings leaned against the storefront represent a nautical motif. That's one common guess.
"Lots of people ask about the meaning behind them," says shopkeeper Kevin Riley, stepping out onto the sun-warmed brick sidewalk. This summer – the second year the store has offered them – many customers have handed over $20 to $40 for the flat-backed, 3-D stars. Medium size sells best, he says, in blue, red, or black.
Buyers, he says, seem interested to learn that the hot-selling items are "barn stars," decorations of tin or distressed painted wood with roots in 1820s Amish and other farming communities of German descent. Sometimes the stars represented a builder's trademark, according to most accounts. Other times they were just the aesthetic equivalent of the horseshoe.
Barn stars first boomed as décor just after the Civil War and have long surfaced at country-craft markets. They now appear to be on the crest of a national resurgence, appearing online and at stores ranging from boutiques to the corner CVS. Many are made in China, but the genuine article, newly minted, is also aggressively sought.
"They are huge. We can't keep up," says Kelli Toomey, co-owner, with Vern Christian, of Amish Wares, an online retailer in Mansfield, Ohio, that a year ago began selling tin stars handmade in a local Amish community. Some 500 to 600 new orders are in hand at any given time, says Mr. Christian. He'd like to branch out into wooden stars. "But I'm almost afraid to," he says, citing the time required to hand-carve them.
Like others, he can only guess at the reason for the rising interest. Red and blue stars, in particular, evoke a patriotic brand of Americana, he suggests. (The star shape, interestingly, has reportedly also gained in popularity recently as a tattoo.) "But we sell so many other colors, too." His largest star, a six-footer, goes for $120 and comes in 25 hues.
"People who decorate 'country' want to coordinate with their houses, match the shutters," Christian says. Amish Wares has shipped to nearly every US state, he says. No orders have come yet from Hawaii. California lagged. New England hit first.
Decorators, of course, are divided. "I'm personally not a big fan," says Lisa Kawski, who designs for clients on Boston's North Shore. She has seen more of them lately on barns and homes around Cape Ann, and finally bought "a very small one" at a flea market for her husband. It has yet to make it onto the side of the garage, she says.
"People use these stars now as an interior-design element," says Claudia Brownlie, a crafter and author in middle Tennessee. "Others have them stuck up on the chimney." Ms. Brownlie – who noted a local surge this summer – traces the stars back to the geometric, multicolored symbols originally painted directly onto the walls of barns. Later ones were made from scraps of roofing tin. She sees symbolism in the colors – black for protection, blue for peace, green for growth. More often the palette appears regional.
"The colors that do best in our part of the country are the white, the light green, and barn red," says Cordelia Mendoza at Cottage Antiques in San Diego, which stocks barn-tin, Amish-made stars. "The old primitive colors – mustard, dark blue, black, dark green – don't do as well out here," she says. One 22-inch "shabby green" star sells at her shop for about $40. "I just love having them," she says. "They're fun to decorate with."