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American Animal Weathervanes
In these days of radio weather reports, without which the spot news programs would be considered incomplete, we are apt to forget that there was a time when people had to be their own weather prophets. Would the day be fair and warm or would there be rain by afternoon? Many a citizen prided himself on his ability to sense what sort of weather was imminent.
On-the-spot foretelling of such changes, independent of government weather bureaus, was something farmers and other wise country folk accomplished with surprising accuracy. Knowing how the wind blew was essential, so that a weathervane was a necessity.
During the nineteenth century, hardly a farm was without a vane mounted on the ridge of the big barn or the cupola of a stable. Back in the eighteenth century, weathervanes were mounted on important buildings. Probably the oldest still in use is the arrow vane on the steeple of the First Church in Hartford, Connecticut, placed there in 1737. Another still in nlace and in the form of a grasshopper is on Faneuil Hall in Boston. Made in 1742, it was the work of Deacon Shem Drowne, a skilled all-around craftsman, born in Kittery, Maine. He is now rated as America's first sculptor. Weathervanes on other public structures were in various forms, such as roosters, bannerettes, and arrows, and were usually sheet-metal silhouettes.
For ordinary farm use, our forebears had to be content with plainer ones of wood, often home-made. They varied from simple arrows that any man handy with a jackknife could whittle out, to larger silhouettes, cut with a scroll-saw from a pine board and mounted on an iron pin.
Such weathervanes were standard for American farms until about 1870, when a three-dimensional type became popular. It appeared on the barns and stables of prosperous farmers and on show buildings of fancy farms owned by financiers, bankers, and railroad titans. The designs were of trotting horses, prize cattle, sheep and hogs, all made with hollow sheet-copper bodies.
The trotting-horse designs with racing sulky and jockey were mostly modeled from Currier & Ives prints of famous winners, such as Flora Temple, Lady Suffolk, still remembered as the beloved Old Gray Mare of folk song, and George M. Patchen, all of whom had established speed records. A few vanes were made in the form of a saddled race horse. That of a Morgan stallion hitched to a racing sulky of the period. The peaked cap and sideburn whiskers of the jockey are indicative of the sporting styles of the late nineteenth century. This vane is twenty-five inches long and twelve inches tall.
Expensive when new and not cheap when found today, most of these animal vanes were from large city metal shops. Two of the best-known makers, both located in New York, were Fisk and Westervelt.