The history of weather vanes is an interesting one which spans many centuries and travels over many countries.
The earliest recorded weather vane honored the Greek god Triton, and adorned the Tower of the Winds in Athens which was built by the astronomer Andronicus in 48 B.C. The figure, which is believed to have been 4 to 8 feet long, had the head and torso of a man and the tail of a fish. To the ancients, the winds had divine powers. In Greece and pre-Christian Rome, weather vanes depicting the gods Boreas, Aeolus, Hermes and Mercury decorated the villas of wealthy landowners.
"Bronze Banner", 1040 A.D., Kirche zu Soderala, Halsingland, Sweden (photo credit: Clemens Hellmut Potz, "Wetterfahnen")
Archaeologists have discovered bronze Viking weather vanes from the 9th century. They have an unusual quadrant shape, usually surmounted by an animal or creature from Norse fable. They were commonly used on Viking ships, and were also popular on Scandinavian churches. These weather vanes can be seen even today in Sweden and Norway.
"Weather Cock", 1733, St. Michael's, Southhampton, England (photo credit: Mabel Reavley, "Weathervane Secrets")
In the ninth century A.D., the pope reportedly decreed that every church in Europe should show a cock on its dome or steeple, as a reminder of Jesus' prophecy that the cock would not crow the morning after the Last Supper, until the disciple Peter had denounced Him three times (Luke 22:34). Because of this story, "weather cocks" have topped church steeples for centuries, both in Europe and in America. The 11th century Bayeux Tapestry even includes a scene of a craftsman attaching a rooster vane to the spire of the Westminster Abbey.
Banner depicting the City of London's coat of arms, London Guildhall, 15th c. (photo credit: A. Needham, "English Weathervanes")
It is probably the banners which flew from medieval towers in Britain, Normandy and Germany which are the precursors to our modern weather vanes. The word "vane" actually comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "fane", meaning "flag". Originally, fabric pennants would show the archers the direction of the wind. Later, the cloth flags were replaced by metal ones, decorated with the insignia or coat of arms of the lord or nobleman, and balanced to turn in the wind. From these antecedents come the banners which the early American colonists favored for their meeting halls and public buildings.
"Grasshopper" made by Shem Drowne 1742, for Faneuil Hall, Boston (photo credit: Myrna Kaye, "Yankee Weathervanes")
America's first documented weather vane maker, Deacon Shem Drowne, created the famous grasshopper vane atop Boston's Faneuil Hall (1742), as well as the banner for Boston's Old North Church (1740), the rooster now on First Church in Cambridge (orig. 1721), and the large copper Indian for Boston's Province House (1716). Thomas Jefferson attached the weather vane on Monticello to a pointer in the ceiling of the room directly below, so he could read the direction of the wind from inside his home. And George Washington commemorated the end of the Revolutionary War by commissioning a "Dove of Peace" weather vane from Joseph Rakestraw in 1787, for his estate at Mount Vernon.
"Black Hawk" (photo credit: L. W. Cushing & Sons, Waltham, Mass., "Catalogue No. 9")
In the early 1800's, Americans favored weather vanes in patriotic designs, including the Goddess of Liberty, and of course, the Federal Eagle. By the middle of the century, vanes of famous racing horses like "Black Hawk", "Smuggler" and "George M. Patchen" were being modeled after the popular Currier and Ives prints. In the 19th century, there were many weather vane manufacturers mass-producing vanes in dozens of designs. Some of the more famous makers were L. W. Cushing, J. W. Fiske, Harris & Co., A. L. Jewell & Co., and E. G. Washburne & Co.
"Banneret" by J. W. Fiske (photo credit: J. W. Fiske, New York, "1893 Catalog")
In the last decades of the 19th century, Victorian buildings had fancy weather vanes and elaborate metalwork embellishing almost every inch of roof space. We have found that Victorian style copperwork, de rigueur on Queen Anne, Second Empire, Richardsonian and Tudor buildings, is in great demand for the Victorian Revival homes of today. After 1900, the movement to a simpler style of architecture was reflected in the silhouette weather vane, which often depicted sporting scenes or figures of a humorous nature.
Current weather vane artists enjoy the opportunity to both recreate the
antique vanes of Europe and America, and invent new sculptural forms, sometimes
using non-traditional materials. It will be interesting to see what the future
will bring to the constantly evolving History of Weather Vanes.
Please refer to our extensive Bibliography for further reading on the subject of weather vanes.
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