They’re called witch marks. Or daisy wheels. Or hexafoils, or apotropaic marks, or charms. A carpenter’s compass could be used to create a perfect circle with six flower-like petals meeting in the center (hence the term daisy wheel!), or cruder designs could be created with a knife or nail. These colonial pieces of graffiti probably represented the sun, or God, or other positive things. The Winslow House has several of them, scratched into the wooden beam over the master fireplace in the winter kitchen.
Their purpose? To protect the home from witches and evil spirits. Witch marks, or whatever you choose to call them, were a form of protective folk magic used by colonists to guard doors, windows, and hearths; all places where evil beings were feared to enter. Such markings have been discovered scratched into old beams, carved onto boxes containing valuables, and even embroidered into household linens. They began appearing in English buildings shortly after the Protestant Reformation and were still in use in the 19th century British colony of Australia!
Good to know, as we get closer and closer to Halloween. If you’re a New Englander of the old school, and you happen to have a compass lying around, there’s no harm in taking precautions, right?
From the 1699 Winslow House, Happy Halloween!