Life on the farm in the 18th and 19th centuries was often harsh as a northeast wind in late November. A farmer could suddenly have his prize cow go dry, his best horse pull up lame or his beloved dog die. Barnyard animals came and went, but one constant high above the milieu was the weather vane. Sometimes depicting the farm’s signature animal, the weather vane atop a barn remained a constant, season after season, year after year.
Those that have survived the elements today represent some of the most valuable Americana and folk art on the market. Sotheby’s sold a nearly life-size molded copper Indian chief weather vane in October 2006 for a record $5.84 million. The 5-foot-2-inch-tall weather vane was attributed to J.L. Mott Iron Works, circa 1900.
While not nearly as large, weather vanes pointed into the wind on most farms in America, not as ornamental elements reflecting the identities of their owners, but because they were the most important tools available in forecasting the weather. Weather vanes simply showed the direction of the wind. A shift in the wind indicated a change in weather would come soon.
Seafarers and fishermen also depended on weather vanes many centuries before the invention of scientific instruments used to forecast weather.
Weather vanes in Colonial America were often shaped like fish, American Indians and arrows. Most of the better examples were imported from Europe, like the weathercock made in Holland in 1656 for the Dutch Reformed Church in Albany, N.Y.
Shem Drowne (1683-1774), a coppersmith and tinplate worker in Boston, was America’s first documented weather vane maker. He is best known for crafting the famous grasshopper weather vane atop Faneuil Hall, which has been a Boston meeting hall and marketplace since 1742. Drowne, an American-born son of a shipbuilder, created a large gilded copper American Indian on Boston’s Province House in 1716 and a 5-foot-tall rooster weather vane, “the golden cockerel,” for the New Brick Church in Boston in 1722. It is now on the First Church in Cambridge, Mass. In 1740 Drowne made a banner style weather vane for Boston’s Old North Church, which remained there until a hurricane blew it down in 1954. It was repaired and replaced.
Banner-style weather vanes mimic the square banners that medieval nobility used to display their armorial insignia. Men of lesser ranks were allowed to use pennants with either single or double tails. These were called bannerets, and the form inspired a style of weather vane. Sir Christopher Wren, a noted 17th-century English architect, is credited with incorporating the long, graceful lines of the banneret into a pleasing weather vane design. The Concord Free Public Library in Concord, Mass., has a banner weather vane dated 1673 in its collections.
American Indians, horses, wild animals and angels became poplar in the latter half of the 18th century, while ships, whales, fish and seagulls graced weather vanes in coastal communities. Paul Revere’s shop in Boston had a wooden codfish vane studded with copper nails.
Patriotic subjects, such as the Goddess of Liberty, became popular after the Revolution, and the Federal eagle gradually gained favor in the 19th century. George Washington commemorated the end of the war by commissioning a Dove of Peace weather vane for Mount Vernon from Joseph Rakestraw of Philadelphia in 1787.
Farmers who lived too far from a village to see the weather vane atop the town hall or a church erected their own on their barns. They either improvised vanes out of whatever material was available—wood, iron or sheet tin—or they hired the local blacksmith to make them.
Because every village had a blacksmith no two handmade weather vanes were exactly alike. Even as companies began to make weather vanes in the mid-1800s, the products were handmade. J. Howard & Co. of Bridgewater, Mass., began making weather vanes as early as 1854, the date on a one-page price list. Howard vanes are prized for their sophisticated and elegant forms.
Alfred H. Denninger of Theodosia, Mo., has been handcrafting weather vanes full time for 20 years. A blacksmith and former farrier, Denninger has studied the techniques of 19th-century weather vane makers as he restored vintage vanes. He admires the skills of weather vane makers even though their products are considered to be manufactured.
“A manufacturing outfit in the 1880s would have been just a few guys doing work the way they would have done it if they were all alone. It wasn’t a factory like Henry Ford’s because that hadn’t been done yet,” said Denninger, noting that each craftsman made vanes from start to finish. “In its day it would have been a weather vane shop with four, five or six craftsmen all doing their own job, working for the boss. We think of that as being manufactured, but in truth they were really made one at a time to order.”
Manufactured vanes of the 19th century were most often made of copper, which was hammered on carved wooden or cast-iron molds. The vane was formed by matching two parts and soldering the seams. This type is known as a swell-bodied weather vane. While not true three-dimensional representations of a subject, swell-bodied vanes exhibit a degree of depth that simple silhouette vanes lack. Made for centuries, sheet metal silhouette vanes regained their popularity again after 1900. Full-bodied vanes have true three-dimensional figures. They can be made using molds or done freehand.
As important as their form and fabrication is the presence of original surface. Collectors pay a premium for the verdigris surface, the green or greenish blue deposit that forms on copper, brass and bronze.
“Some of the weather vanes are sheet iron and the can be very folky, and 18th-century and early 19th-century vanes in the form of roosters and running horses were often made by a person one at a time. Even those vanes, unless the form is really unusual and they have great surface, tend to be not nearly as valuable as the molded vanes,” said Steve Fletcher, director of the Americana department at Skinner Inc., the New England auction house famous for selling Americana.
One such exception is the rooster weather vane that had perched atop the 125-foot steeple of the First Parish Church in Newbury, Mass., since 1869. Patrick Bell, a weather vane specialist from Philadelphia, evaluated the 4-foot-long copper rooster and found it was most likely made in 1772 by Thomas Drowne, Shem Drowne’s son. In February the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston purchased the rooster for $575,000. Little thought must have been given to its historical significance or its worth when the rooster was covered with gold leaf about 30 years ago.
Ordinarily, regilding drastically reduces the value, but few weather vanes date to the 18th century and it is rare to discover one with such solid provenance.
Identifying the makers of 19th-century weather vanes can be difficult because the manufacturers had a propensity for copying popular subjects and casually infringing design patents.
Makers seldom marked their weather vanes. The absence of makers’ marks and signatures on weather vanes makes positive identification difficult. “It’s hard to attribute a lot of these old weather vanes to a specific maker because they weren’t signed,” said Denninger, who contends that matching a weather vane to a design pictured in an old catalog is hardly conclusive.
It is common to find a weather vane attributed to more than one maker, for example J.W. Fiske or E.G. Washburne, both of New York.
Common forms include the popular trotting horses Black Hawk and his son Ethan Allen.
“Race horses back in the 19th century were really the sports heroes before we had big-time baseball and football,” said Fletcher. “Eagle forms tend to be a good buy and cows can be a good buy, but when you start getting into rarer forms or weather vanes with extraordinary color the prices escalate.”
Inevitably, many weather vanes have been destroyed by the forces they were designed to forecast.
“I think in New England there were hundreds if not thousands of weather vanes that met their fate in the hurricane of 1938. They blew off the barns and never make it back up again and were thrown out,” said Fletcher.
Many vanes have been riddled with bullet holes. Called to an old farm in Massachusetts, Fletcher found in an outbuilding a good rooster weather vane “that must have had 75 bullet holes in it.”
“They said their great aunt had been a good shot. She had shot at this thing for a long time,” said Fletcher.
The fortunate weather vanes have been saved from such ignominious fates. Fletcher recalls an American Indian vane that had been removed from a barn in one of the towns flooded by the Quabbin Reservoir project in central Massachusetts. “That weather vane was in great condition because it had been out of the elements since the 1930s,” he said.
Fletcher said that weather vanes have also been suffered from being cleaned, refinished and regilded.
The quality of today’s imported weather vanes does not compare to that of 19th- and early 20th-century vanes.
“All this stuff from Taiwan, all the import stuff you see in the pseudo antique shops, they’re actually pressed in huge machinery. There’s nothing handmade about them. They’re pressed, they’re trimmed and they have some guy there sticking the parts together with a little solder. It’s purely a production run,” said Denninger, adding that the new weather vanes are very thin and soft.
“Copper, any metal, work hardens in time. If you take a piece of copper and hit it with a hammer on an anvil, the more you hit it the harder the piece gets. The molecules of the copper are changed and hardened,” said Denninger. “A piece that’s been in the wind and sun for years … the metal expands when it gets hot and contracts when it gets cold; that’s also work hardening. It’s work hardened to the point it’s almost fragile.”
Denninger said that the experienced hands and eyes of a coppersmith can determine what is an antique weather vane and what has been doctored to appear older than it is.
“You can tell the way the solder is eroded. The lead and tin solder is eroded on a piece because of the way it reacts with the copper.
Condition of the finish is also a clue to the authenticity of a weather vane. Collectors crave the verdigris that appears after the original gold leaf has worn off. The green finish can be faked in an effort to greatly enhance the value of a weather vane.
“You can spend a lot of time trying to get it just right, putting the gold leaf on and then burnishing it off, and making it look like it came off with natural wear,” said Denninger. “Then this patina on top; you have to know what you’re doing with the right chemicals, the right temperatures, the right brush strokes. … The guys that pull the cons don’t want to tell you because they’re going to be out of business.”
Another aid to spotting suspect vanes is to become familiar with the look of authentic weather vanes. “American folk art has a flavor to it,” said Denninger. “When you understand what American folk art looks like—the line and design of American folk art—and you see it done in the imports, you can tell. There’s something wrong with the fish. It looks like an Asian fish instead of an American fish. There’s something peculiar about it.”
With vintage weather vanes selling for thousands of dollars, the temptation to create fakes is great, said Denninger. “There’s a certain element out there making an awful lot of money off phony stuff.
Tom Hoepf is a freelance writer living in Knightstown, Ind. He collects glass made in his hometown, Tiffin, Ohio.
The Heritage Museums & Gardens, 67 Grove St., Sandwich, MA 02563, has a nice collection of about 30 antique American weather vanes dating from the late 1700s to the early 1900s. “The one we know most about is a banner-type weather vane from a church. Inside the banner it says, ‘God is Love.’ It was on a building in South Bridge, Mass.,” said Jennifer Y. Madden, director of Collections and Exhibitions. The museum also has a centaur archer weather vane accompanied by the original sales receipt from the A.L. Jewell & Co. dated Jan. 17, 1860.
“We have a nice train weather vane. I’m making the assumption that it would have been on a train station, but we don’t know that for sure,” said Madden.
For more information about Heritage Museums & Gardens, visit the Web site www.heritagemuseumsandgardens.org or phone 508-888-3300.
Steve Fletcher, Steve Fletcher, director of the Americana department at Skinner Inc., 274 Cedar Hill St., Marlborough, MA 01753, phone 508-970-3000, www.skinnerinc.com.
Alfred H. Denninger, Denninger Weather Vanes & Finials, HC3 Box 3335, Theodosia, MO 65761, phone 508-970-3000, www.denninger.com.
Key books are Art of the Weathervane by Steve Miller (1984: Schiffer Publishing) and Weathervanes: The History, Manufacture and Design of an American Folk Art by Charles Klamkin (1973: Hawthorne Books).