In early America, the weather was of utmost importance for daily life. The prevailing winds and a sudden change in direction, combined with patterns of the clouds and the level of moisture in the air, could determine whether a storm was on its way—freezing crops or providing them with much-needed rain. So it was that every city, village, and farm had its own weathervane (also called a weather vane, weathercock, wind vane) perched atop the highest building, to show people the direction the wind was coming from.
The concept goes back to ancient Greece, where the first known weathervane, a life-size bronze Triton figure with his wand pointing into the wind, sat on the top of the Tower of the Winds temple. These devices are first recorded in England in the 11th century, and by the 17th century they were vital to ship merchants, aristocrats with shipping interests, and military leaders. Usually their weathervanes were attached to wind-clocks, often placed above the fireplace, which helped a merchant or a king calculate how long it would take his shipments or navies to arrive in port.
In England, the rooster, or cock, was such a popular design that the devices were often called weathercocks. For Christians, the rooster symbolizes the Passion of Christ, as Jesu...
Arrows, like the one attached to the Father Time weathervane over Lord’s Cricket Grounds in London, which signals the end of play, were obvious weathervane motifs; farmers liked plain arrows for their simplicity and accuracy. Grasshopper weathervanes were a popular symbol for merchants, like the one belonging to Sir Thomas Gresham, founder of the Royal Exchange.
At first, the colonists in America simply copied the weathervane designs used in mother England, be they arrows, grasshoppers, roosters, or fish, another ancient Christian symbol. The cock and the grasshopper design in particular remained popular for hundreds of years. Esteemed 18th-century weathervane artisan, Boston coppersmith Shem Drowne, adopted the grasshopper motif and made a copper one with green glass eyes that can still be seen at the home of the merchant family Faneuil.
After America won its independence, weathervanes in the U.S. took on their own personalities. Farmers, concerned with their livestock and beasts of burden, would have weathervanes made in the shapes of horses, cows, sheep, pigs, or chickens, while coastal villages that depended on fishing favored sailors, captains, ships, whales, seagulls, fish, mermaids, and sea serpents. In addition to roosters and fish, American churches were topped by angels blowing trumpeting horns. Some shop owners would use their weathervanes as signs.
Other American weathervanes were specific to a particular region. In Eastern Pennsylvania, farmers would display Indian-shaped weathervanes on their barns. The Indian's arrows indicated wind direction, while the Indian itself was supposed to be a sign that the property owner had bought his land from Indians, thus avoiding any raids on his farm.
Some of the most enduring themes for weathervanes in the U.S. are patriotic symbols like the bald eagle, Lady Liberty, and Uncle Sam, which were used on private homes as well as municipal government buildings. When the steam locomotive first appeared on the scene, the railroad soon became a popular weathervane motif—these same train engines were quickly modeled by toy train makers.
For a weathervane, whose name comes from the Old English word “fane” meaning flag or banner, to be successful, it must have even weight distribution throughout but an uneven surface area. It also has to have a sharply drawn profile, making it easy to distinguish from the ground and in silhouette. Some weathervanes also have the compass points, N, S, E, and W, in a fixed position to compare the pointer against.
The earliest American weathervanes were carved out of wood or cut from sheet metal. Wooden vanes were usually painted in solid colors like red or white or yellow ocher to emulate gold leaf, or in a few brightly contrasting colors. Metal vanes, on the other hand, might be painted or gilded, but most were not. Unpainted iron made a dark, bold silhouette all by itself, while copper shined in a striking way at first, and then turned an appealing grayish green. Not surprisingly, few of these handcrafted, unfinished, weathervanes have survived.
You’re much more likely to find a weathervane from after 1850, when they became three-dimensional and were mass produced by companies like J.W. Fiske Works, of New York City, and J. Howard & Co. and A.L. Jewell & Co., of Massachusetts. All were sold in hardware stores and via mail-order catalogs.
Even though these companies had mechanized manufacturing processes for their vanes, much of the work still had to be done by hand by a specialized craftsman. Some were forged out of cast iron, using sand molds, a similar technique used to make the earliest mechanical banks. Most companies, however, specialized in hollow, 3D copper weathervanes, which were produced by hammering two pieces of sheet copper into cast-iron molds, and then soldering them together.
Another amusing weathervane-like device is the whirligig, a figure that showed not only the wind’s direction but also its speed. These wooden figures, usually military men, were hand-carved in the round by local craftsmen. Paddle-like wooden arms were then attached via a rod in the figures’ shoulders. The military dress was usually quite realistic and detailed, so antique whirligigs can be dated by their clothing. Smaller whirligigs are thought to be children’s toys.
Having been constantly exposed to the elements, many antique weathervanes on the market today are damaged or have been repaired. One of the most famous weathervanes is the Indian chief vane from Henry Ford's granddaughter's house in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, which sold for $5.84 million dollars at a Sotheby’s auction in New York in 2006. That 1900 vane was made by J.L. Mott Iron Works of New York and Chicago.
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