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by Steve Mills, contributing editor for Heartland Trails
Weathervanes have been a feature of many civilizations for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Acadian literature, dating to 1800-1600 B.C., references weathervanes in a fable, “Like a crown, the Temple is adorned with...” – the worn text grows illegible, until the next line, “They look at the weathervane for the direction of the wind.” This is the first known reference to weathervanes, which until these texts were discovered, were thought to only date back to the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C. in the Greek and Chinese societies.
The first recorded weathervane adorned the Tower of the Winds, in Athens, Greece, circa 48 B.C. The instrument depicted the god Triton, son of Poseidon—King of the Sea, not a surprising choice, as the most common use of the weathervanes were by sailors and fishermen, to predict and determine the direction of the winds before they set out to sea, as well as used to predict storms and other weather patterns.
Weathervanes show up again in history, in the 9th Century A.D., with a Papal decree that all churches in Europe were to show a weathercock on its dome, or steeple. The rooster was a reminder of Jesus’ prophecy that the rooster would not crow on the morning following the last supper, until disciple Peter had denounced him three times. The 11th Century Bayeux Tapestry depicts a craftsman repairing, or installing a weathercock atop a church.
The first weathervanes in America were imported from Europe as the settlers colonized the new land. They were very important to the colonial tradesmen, as farming and seafaring trades made predicting the weather and the winds a necessity of every-day life. The European weathervanes were at first copied by early Colonial crafters, and played a very important part in honing metal-smithing skills in early America, as well as developing and defining an early Colonial art style. Weathervanes are considered America’s first true form of sculpture, as many tradesmen developed their own artistic styles while creating the popular ornamental and functional item. By the end of the American Revolution, American craftsmen were creating higher quality and more ornate weathervanes than the European counterparts they’d imported, originally. Many of these hand-crafted weathervanes were three-dimensional, offering a surprising level of detail in the metalwork. In addition to the widely popular rooster, other barnyard animals such as cows, pigs, and horses were popular, as well as dogs, Indians, trains, flags, and even whales and fish in coastal communities.
History aside, antique weathervanes are a fantastic collector’s item in the present day. The terms weathervane and weathercock are interchangeable, however some prefer to reserve the use of ‘weathercock’ for weathervanes depicting a rooster, often crowing, which is a common design of weathervane in early America through the earlier years of the 20th Century. The crowing rooster atop the church steeple was often the first thing to catch the morning sun in colonial villages, and much as their living counterparts do even now, announce the arrival of the day, adding a touch of symbolism to the tradition.
The first recorded American weathervane maker was Deacon Shem Drowne, who crafted the famous Grasshopper weathervane atop Boston’s Faneuil Hall, c. 1742, which was reportedly stolen, and held for ransom in January of 1974. Drowne also fabricated the banner for Boston’s Old North Church, and the Indian weathervane that adorned Boston’s Province House. Benjamin Franklin is even owed some credit to the history of weathervanes, as he had attached his rooftop weathervane to a dial in the ceiling directly beneath it—allowing him to tell the direction of the wind from indoors, a rare commodity in the day.
Antique Weathervanes are a hot item now, as demand is high and supply is increasingly rare, many of these fine specimens of early American folk art now residing in private collections. Weathervanes dated prior to the 1850’s were all hand-crafted, and as the industrial revolution grew, vanes constructed in the latter half of the 19th century were mass-produced. Almost all weathervanes in America were created from only a few materials, namely Copper, Iron, Zinc, or Wood. Mass produced weathervanes were often hammered into shape or press-molded, with two halves being trimmed together, then lead-soldered to create a single item. Other weathervanes were solid-cast in metal, starting with wooden, hand-carved models as a template. As mass production took the market, hundreds of designs and shapes were made available. The demand in the early 20th century took a turn toward simpler, ‘silhouette’ styled vanes, however three-dimensional weathervanes continued to be produced in smaller numbers by those who still revered the craft as an art form.
Finding a good antique weathervane for your own collection can be an interesting journey. The folk art fits very nicely with any antique ‘Americana’ collection, or just about any décor for that matter. The more worn and weathered an item is, to an extent, the more it is worth. Most weathervanes for sale today can be priced from under a hundred dollars, to several thousand or even more! Weathervanes that have been cleaned are worth significantly less than vanes in original condition. For instance, an antique weathervane that had been painted may be oxidized, worn, and missing much of its paint—however, the few surviving hand-painted details drastically increase the value of the piece, which would be lost if the item were cleaned.
A thing to look for, while you’re browsing vanes, is the oxidation layer that builds up from constant exposure to the elements for extended periods of time. Copper weathervanes will have a natural crust of green oxidation, called ‘verdigris patina’. This oxidation is difficult to recreate with chemical methods, though it doesn’t stop the occasional imposter from trying! Iron weathervanes will have a thick layer of deep-brown rust, with pitting evident on all the exposed surfaces. Look out for iron weathervanes that leave your hands orange, though, as these could be faked with a method as simple as burying a new weathervane in manure and dirt, or through more advanced chemical methods. It’s a good idea to inspect small cracks and holes in any potential purchase for packed-in dirt, just to be sure.
Wood weathervanes should resemble driftwood, with cracks, and weather-worn edges. These weathervanes were often painted, which would survive in a cracked and weathered state. Things to watch out for would be sanding marks at the edges of the surviving paint, which may mean the natural wear process was ‘helped’ by human hands.
Antique weathervanes with attribution to the maker, or a ‘maker’s mark’ are very rare. Some of the popular companies that crafted weathervanes in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s include L.W. Cushing, J.W. Fiske, Harris & Co., A.L. Jewell & Co., E.G. Washburn & Co., and J.L. Mott. One of the J.L. Mott weathervanes recently sold at auction for over $5.84 million, setting a world record as the highest selling price for a weathervane. The weathervane depicted an Indian chief drawing an arrow in his bow, standing atop a directional. The 62-inch tall piece was crafted from copper, dated to the first decade of the 1900’s, and was likely a custom commissioned item.
In earlier days, weathervanes weren’t regarded as highly as they are today, so seeing a few bullet holes in a weathervane isn’t cause for alarm, as they were commonly used for target practice. Many items for sale have either had the holes repaired, or if they’re not intrusive to the overall design, the holes are left, adding to that character and charm.
All things said, weathervanes have been an important aspect for hundreds, or even thousands of years for cultures across the globe, as not only beautiful decorative pieces, but functional predictors of changing weather and trade winds for our ancestors, just beginning to colonize the shores of our great country. Keep your eyes peeled at your local antique mall, flea market, and garage sales…as these items, much like any other antique, can show up in some strange places…and for very little money, compared to their true worth!