Weathervanes – History

The History and Manufacture of Weathervanes

Collectors of Americana classify weathervanes as “folk sculpture”, but to the original purchasers, they were meteorological tools that predicted wind direction, and thus a change in the weather. Handmade in the 17th and 18th centuries in America, by the mid-19th century, weathervanes were being factory-produced in large numbers. Both the earlier and later examples are highly collectable, and are sought after for their quirky vitality. Value depends less on the form (i.e. rooster or horse), than on the quality of the molding, the character and condition of the surface and the charm of the object.

A weathervane can be two or three-dimensional and is fashioned from wood or metal (copper, zinc, tin, iron or brass) and affixed upon a pole so that it can rotate with the wind. The front is made heavier than the back (usually with zinc), and the rod placed about 1/3 down the length of the object so that the vane will head into the wind.

Weathervanes did not originate in America. In fact, the first recorded weathervane is the “Tower of the Winds” built in 48 B.C. by the astronomer Andronicus in Athens, Greece. That vane was in the form of the Greek god Triton, who has a head and torso of a man and the tail of a fish. Following this precedent, Greek and Romans added weathervanes honoring different gods to their villas and public buildings throughout the ancient world.

Almost a thousand years later in Europe, a ninth century Papal edict required that every church show a rooster on its roof recalling Jesus’s prophecy that the morning following the Last Supper the cock would not crow until the disciple Peter had denounced Him three times. Thus the “weather cock” entered our language and a tradition began that continues to the present day.

By the end of the first millennium, weathervanes were common in Scandinavia, France, Germany and England, often in the form of banners or bronze flags bearing the arms of the local baron. In fact, the word “vane” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “fane”, meaning flag.

Early colonists brought this tradition to America to adorn their towns and villages. It didn’t take long for them to add fish, gulls and ships to the weathervane repertory. Perhaps the most famous early vane is the Grasshopper atop Boston’s Faneuil Hall, made in 1742 by America’s first documented weathervane maker, Deacon Shem Drowne, who also created the large copper Indian vane for Boston’s Province House (1716) and the banner for Old North Church (1740). Farmers, being distant from the town’s vanes and an independent lot, often made their own vanes and added animals of all types to the form’s vocabulary.

By the 19th century, most weathervanes were factory-made. These examples are fashioned in at least two parts, and usually more. The maker would begin with a clay or wooden model with one flat side: for instance the left side of a running horse. A plaster cast would be made of this profile, and then this plaster would be cast in iron. The maker would build the opposite side directly on the plaster cast so that the two sides would fit together exactly, and then cast the right side in iron as well. With the two iron molds made, copper sheeting would be hammered over the molds, removed and refined. The two parts would be soldered together with lead, and chased and finished, then gilded for the final product.

Many of the most productive factories had printed catalogues, which are very helpful to collectors today. A.L. Jewell & Company was active in Waltham, Massachusetts in the mid to late 19th Century. This company was eventually taken over by Cushing & White, which then changed names to become L. W. Cushing and Company. Weathervanes from this factory are sometimes signed with the name and address of the company on a small oval that is attached to the crossbar of the vane, or could be stamped with the name. A signed weathervane can be more valuable than one that is not identified (other factors being equal). A. L. Jewell & Company weathervanes are somewhat primitive in form and generally have copious amounts of lead solder.

Catalog of Weathervanes Manufactured by L.W. Cushing and Company (click on images for larger view)

The Jonathan Howard & Company, active in the mid-19th century in Bridgewater, Massachusetts is known for having the most graceful forms. These weathervanes will typically have a full zinc front rather than zinc head, and are often stamped, “J. Howard & Co. W. Bridgewater, Mass.”. In 1868, the company was bought by H.L. Washburn & Company, and while the same forms were used the weathervanes are less desirable, as they lost some of their vitality.

New York companies of distinction include J.W. Fiske & Company, E.G. Washburne & Company, Samuel Bent & Sons, J. L. Mott Iron Works, and A. B. & W. T. Westervelt & Company among others. Contemporary catalogues show that all of these companies copied each other’s forms: the weathervanes are similar in design, construction and price.

While form does not dictate price, some of the many desirable examples include eagles, horses (standing, running, flying, index, with sulky), Indians, fish, farm animals of every variety (cows, bulls, oxen, ewes, rams, pigs, goats), deer and stags, foxes, fish and squirrels. Fanciful forms such as centaurs and angels are more rare, and are coveted by collectors. By the 20th century, cars, airplanes, fire engines, trains and bicycles were also popular designs, and continue to bring strong prices in today’s market.

Weathervanes that include an American symbol, such as a flag, are the most popular and therefore the most expensive. In the Federal era, George Washington commemorated the Revolutionary War’s end by commissioning a “Dove of Peace” vane for Mt. Vernon from Joseph Rakestraw in 1787, and Thomas Jefferson installed a famous vane atop Monticello’s dome with an interior indicator of the wind’s direction.

To date, the highest priced weathervane sold at auction is the “Goddess of Liberty with Flag” (sometimes called “Columbia”), 24″ high, probably made by J.W. Fiske, and sold at Northeast Auctions, August 7, 2005, lot 1330 for $145,500. A smaller version (15″) of the same figure was sold on January 22, 2005 at Sotheby’s in New York for $72,000.

These figures, are of course, at the very upper end of the spectrum. What is the difference between a $1,200 leaping stag and one that sells for $114,00 (1/22/05 Sotheby’s New York)? Condition! Condition of the surface and of the molding is everything. If the weathervane retains traces of the original gilding or has a lovely weathered surface it will be worth much more than one that has been “skinned” or that is just plain rotted and rusted.

Individually made weathervanes tend to be very idiosyncratic. They are usually made of painted wood or sheet iron, and are more typically two-dimensional rather than full-bodied. This part of the market is hard to quantify, and examples are very hard to date. Beware of modern weathervanes masquerading as “folky” 19th century examples. Examine the paint surface for wear, and on wooden forms make sure that the wood shows exposed grain (i.e. weather should have made the wood in between the grain more worn than the tougher grain itself). Metal weathervanes should have pitted edges (you may have to look closely with a magnifying glass), and rusted rivets that have “bled” iron onto the copper sheeting.

Factory made or one-off’s, weathervanes continue to be a strong segment of the American folk art market. While exceptional examples can go for six figures, most remain in the mid-market range, and are readily available. For the collector who wishes to have lots of choice at many price points, weathervanes offer a good opportunity.

Bishop, Robert & Coblentz, Patricia, A Gallery of American Weathervanes and Whirligigs, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1981.
Miller, Steve, The Art of the Weathervane, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Exton, Pennsylvania, 1984.

Reference note by Contributing Editor By Jan W. Hack and p4A staff.

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