MELVILLE, N.Y. -- A gold star in the window might mean a son's death in a war. A star on the American flag signifies a state. And a star stuck on a student's work celebrates a job well done.
So what is the meaning of those five-point metal stars that hang on house exteriors, sometimes above the garage or up near the gable?
Turns out that homeowners just like them, plain and simple.
Take Theresa and Richard Gallo of Huntington, N.Y., who last year put a maroon star over their garage after seeing stars on homes in Massachusetts while visiting a cousin there.
"It just caught my eye ... every house had a star and then we got to her house and she had a star and I said, 'I have to get that star,' " recalls Theresa Gallo, 51, who works in the compliance department of a Wall Street commodities company. "I just thought it was cute. I figured it would look nice on the house."
Later, when she talked about the star to Frances Mackay of East Northport, N.Y., another of her cousins, she learned Mackay had already installed two in her family room, two in her bedroom and a big one in the foyer. Mackay, who'd seen the stars in country-style decor magazines, ordered hers from a catalog.
For her, the stars are both a touch of traditional Americana in her country-flavored family room and a spiritual symbol when flanking an angel image in her bedroom.
"It's very decorative," Mackay, 68, a part-time secretary, says about the star shape, "and it enhances the area you want to put it in. It covers an area that you don't want to put too many things on, and it gives it a nice impact."
They've shown up in colors from black to mustard and maroon, or covered in a starry flag-motif or with a rustic, rusty texture that has proved popular among Ruth Koroghlian's customers at Cow Harbor Fine Gifts in Northport, N.Y., where the price range is $40 to $55 for stars about 9 inches across all the way up to 24 inches. Some go up to 48 inches for outdoor use.
"They've been popular for two or three years," she says. "I think it's a countrywide tradition. I've seen them in New England, upstate, across the country."
The metal stars are actually an outgrowth of an old architectural feature in which metal stars or other geometric shapes, in a range of sizes and styles, were used in a row across the facades of brick buildings to hide the ends of beams used to hold the building and facade together.
The Pennsylvania Dutch stars were painted onto barns, first appearing on circular wooden inserts built into the stone walls of barns from at least the late 1700s, and later painted directly onto barn walls. A popular misconception is that these stars were a good-luck symbol. Not so. Rather, they were simply decorative, say local experts like David Fooks, who runs the annual Kutztown Festival in Kutztown, Pa.
The festival celebrates the culture of those now known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, actually descendants of German immigrants who first settled in what is now Pennsylvania in 1625.
The stars, elaborate colorful designs with up to 18 arms, have "no meaning to them that we've ever been able to find out," Fooks says, citing research of old interviews by folklorists with elderly itinerant barn-star painters early in the 20th century.
Fooks says that in the Middle Ages, a small star by the door represented a free man and landowner in some regions of Germany, and the star figured in colorful decorations on furniture, trunks and textiles.
But the barn star was an indigenous American folk art, he says, adding that he and others were trying to preserve the tradition with an endowment fund to help local farmers with the $1,200 to $1,800 cost of painting new stars on their barns.
Old and new looks
As for the metal architectural stars, Matt Lippa of Artisans, a folk-art dealer in Alabama who sells with a partner over the Internet at folkartisans.com, said that they offer both antique stars, often taken from building demolitions, and new stars that are sometimes sold as old.
"The new ones you find are purely decorative pieces, and the surfaces are usually antiqued to look old," he says. "A lot of people will sell them as new, and the disreputable ones will offer them as old."
Many of the tin five-pointed stars sold in gift shops today are imported from China, with no pretension of age. They're simply decorative.
Some store owners say they've seen less demand this year for the outdoor stars compared to last year, although they're still selling.
"I would say it's less than half of what I was selling two or three years ago," says Bob Moore, owner of Country Clutter in the Tanger Outlet Center in Riverhead, N.Y. "I think maybe there's been a little oversaturation, but I still get people."
One of his salesclerks, Christine Haines of Calverton, N.Y., says that stars have been a popular item.
She adds that she's thinking of buying one for an empty wall at the base of her stairs. "I figure the star would go with a lot of the country decor inside my house," she says. "It doesn't need anything else to embellish it; it just looks pretty on it's own."
Carol Polsky writes for Newsday.