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Weathervane WhimsyAuthor: Clifford Wayne
(Article orginally published August 1963)
Some weathervane designs are of ancient vintage, especially the "Grasshopper" vane atop Faneuil Hall in Boston, Mass. This quaint "wind stick" was copied by Peter Faneuil from the original used on the Merchants Exchange Building in London, England, several hundreds of years ago.
The London Grasshopper was chosen as it was the family crest of Sir Thomas Gresham. The first syllable of Sir Thomas's name, "gres," is an AngloSaxon word meaning grass.
Others, too, have copied the grasshopper design, such as the weathervane that is fastened to the General Salem Towne House at Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, Mass.
The grasshopper was highly honored by the Greeks who chose it as a symbol to denote that they sprang from the soil of Athens. The ancients revered the grasshopper.
Weathervanes did not originate in America. Some outstanding original designs were made here in the United States, but the vane; as an instrument to identify wind direction, traces back to Athens and B. C. As this freeblowing device came to be used more and more, the original wand, or arrow, gave way to whims in weathervane designs of endless variety.
One of the oldest and most popular designs in this country was that of the copper Cockerall (1656) which adorned the steeple of the Dutch Reform Church at Albany, New York. For churches, the rooster symbolized the incident of Peter and his prophesied denial of the Lord. For the uncounted thousands of barn tops the rooster weathervane was the emblem of the farm.
The American folk art of wood carving contributed clever designs for weathervanes -wooden codfish, common along seaports; sailors, some with Eagles; Flying Geese seemed popular in the South; a Highlander was often portrayed by the Scotch migrants on their vanes, and the Charging Buffalo was often a Western choice. There were many trade weathervanes in use, such as the Mortar and Pestle of the druggist, a Boot with an exaggerated toe for the shoe maker, a large glove for the glove factory, and a revolving pig for the butcher. Horses in a prancing stance became very popular and can still be seen on hundreds of barns. A silhouetted buggy was not uncommon, and large whales could be found atop buildings along the seacoast.
A few of the more unique weathervanes were: a man driving a pig, both standing on a carving knife, an irate wife brandishing a rolling pin, and an American flag made into a colorful and patriotic weather direction finder.
For those who were satisfied with "boughten" weathervanes, preferably in copper, the J. W. Fish Company of New York offered many designs which they sold through a well illustrated catalog. Other companies who offered weathervanes were L. W. Cushing and Sons of Waltham, Massachusetts; J. Harris and Sons of Boston, and W. A. Snow and John Whim.
By 1850, weathervane manufacturing was a prosperous trade, and the metal vane replaced those of wood. These became profiles of the objects they represented and, in order to make them sturdy and easy to see, they were enlarged and at the same time pierced so that they could withstand heavy wind velocities.
The old wooden style weathervanes were usually finished in a yellow or ochre; the metal vanes were now frequently finished in gilt or gold color. These had to be regilded or painted from time to time, so the cast iron vanes gradually replaced them.
The American countryside became dotted with professional and homemade weathervanes, unpainted, painted, polychromed, gilded and often striped, and as their popularity grew they began to appear in our American artist's depiction of the American Scene. The study of Currier and Ives's prints will bear this out, for here one will find weathervanes shaped as squirrels, ears of corn, swans, turtles, ostriches, foxes, and even on one building a bullfrog.
Back in the eighteenth century, weathervanes were to be found generally on important public buildings. Later, and particularly in America, during the nineteenth century there was hardly a farm without its weather sign perched on the barn ridge or stable cupola.
Most of the early American weathervanes were very plain, home made and usually carved out of wood. These crude affairs were the standard until about 1870, when a more elaborate, three-dimensional type weathervane came into popularity, and was much used by the more prosperous farmers. These finely constructed instruments were to be found on the tops of the show barns of the fancy farms owned by the business titans of that day. These designs made of hollow sheetcopper bodies resembled trotting horses, prize cattle, sheep and hogs, and a few vanes were made in the form of a saddled race horse. This latter design was in complete detail showing a Morgan stallion hitched to a racing sulky; the peaked cap and sideburn whiskers of the jockey give us the picture of the sporting styles of the late nineteenth century.
In these days of radio and television weather reports we are unaware of those earlier times when people had to be their own weather prophets. With the aid of their homemade weather indicators and a knowledge of cloud formations many a farmer in his area became an expert prognosticator of what sort of weather was in store for those around him, so that a weathervane was almost a necessity.
Due to their outdoor use and their exposure to the weather, year after year, very few weathervanes have been preserved. But those that have been, and are, give us an interesting facet of one of early America's most unique objects.