Weathervanes have a long and notable history as a functional and evocative artwork. The earliest recorded weather vane honored the Greek god Triton and was found atop the Tower of the Winds in Athens built 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 holding a wand which he could use to command the winds to arise and abate. The building was octagonal to honor the 8 winds of Greece. Facing counterclockwise each bas relief section represented the type of weather that could be expected from that quarter. To the ancients, the winds had divine powers.
Weathervanes Through the Ages
In Greece and pre-Christian Rome, weather vanes depicting the gods decorated the villas of wealthy landowners. 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 as a navigational tool and can be seen even today in Sweden and Norway.
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. While medieval nobility were permitted to carry their armorial bearings on a square banner, lesser ranks were allowed pendants with single or double tales. From these designs come the banners which the early American colonists favored for their meeting halls and public buildings.
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.
Weathervanes in America
The oldest weathervane in the United States is a “weather cock” design and is found in Albany NY, it was brought from Holland in 1656. 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).
Other interesting weather vanes in American history: 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, 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.
In the early 1800’s, Americans favored weather vanes in patriotic designs, Goddess of Liberty, and Federal Eagle. By the middle of the century, vanes of famous racing horses like Black Hawk, Ethan Allen and Smuggler 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., L. Jewell & Co.,E. G. Washburne & Co., Boston Metalworkers Company 1850. Distinctive cardinal point design makes them more useful than the weathervane design in determining who the maker was.
Tuck and Holand Metal Sculptors is the only authorized producer of weathervanes using the only available J.W. Fiske molds in the world. All of the other J. W. Fiske original molds are included in folk art museum collections such as the Folk Art and New York Museum.