Americana, folk art, sculpture, historical documents, cultural markers, scientific tools, advertising devices: weathervanes are all of these. Since the 1970s, they have been increasingly sought after by collectors, and in recent years many vanes have brought five- and six-figure prices. A few have sold for millions. The present record price is $5.8 million for an Indian Chief vane sold at auction in 2006. But records are meant to be broken…
However beautiful, whimsical, historically significant, or imaginative a weathervane may be, it is fundamentally utilitarian. In the days before weather satellites and accurate forecasts, being able to know the wind direction at a glance could be money-saving and even life-saving information for farmers, mariners, and merchants.
The earliest American weathervanes were homemade two-dimensional creations of wood, iron, or tin, most often shaped into such traditional shapes as feathers, roosters, and pennants called bannerets. Soon, however, the motifs of weathervanes began to show more than the directions of fitful breezes. Forms became more varied and more elaborate. They began to record shifts in politics and popular culture as well as changes in the wind.
One of America’s earliest surviving and best-known figural weathervanes is the iconic grasshopper that has topped Boston’s Faneuil Hall since 1742. It was made by coppersmith Shem Drowne, patterned after the grasshopper vane on the Royal Exchange building in London. Perched atop a center of industry, Boston’s gilded copper ornament was intended to symbolize that the New World city would, like its English counterpart, also be a great financial hub.
For another hundred years, most weathervanes were one-of-a-kind, minimal silhouettes, most often found atop houses of worship or other public buildings. But change was in the air.
Beginning in the 1840s, several enterprising Massachusetts metalworkers began the commercial production of weathervanes. They commissioned woodworkers to carve three-dimensional patterns which became the basis for metal molds. Skilled craftsmen then formed thin sheet copper on the molds and soldered the two halves together. The vane was then coated with a special varnish and gold leaf was applied. In some cases, paint was used for further embellishment.
The ability to produce identical multiples, and the production of catalogs from which the finished product could be ordered, led to an increasing popularity for weathervanes and a proliferation of forms.
The natural world was a major source of inspiration. Weathervanes based on the forms of cod, swordfish, whales, sea dragons, even lobsters proclaimed the major source of wealth in coastal communities. Cows, sheep, and pigs announced to passersby the species of livestock to be found in the barn and farmyard below. In the 1880s, horse racing, and especially harness racing, became a national craze. Numerous horse weathervanes were modeled on famed champions of the day.
Wild creatures were also represented, although somewhat less often than domestic livestock. Squirrels, foxes, and beavers swiveled in the wind, as did the occasional serpent or butterfly. Exotic creatures made an occasional appearance—at least one elephant vane has survived.
Birds were another popular and appropriate form. The rooster was once the single most popular figural weathervane; an Italian example from the 9th century survives in a museum in Brescia. To adorn his Mount Vernon estate, George Washington commissioned a Dove of Peace bearing an olive branch instead of the ubiquitous weathercock. Other avian forms include peacocks, pheasants, quail, and herons.
Various versions of the human figure from goddesses to golfers have also appeared on weathervanes. Many 18th and early 19th century vanes had as their subject matter cherubs and angels. The trumpet-blowing figure of Gabriel was especially popular on New England houses of worship.
In the mid-19th century, the romanticization of Native Americans occasioned a profusion of Indian chief vanes. The record-breaking example sold in 2006 is an almost life-size figure in full headdress with a drawn bow in his hands. There are many versions of this form in other materials such as wood and sheet metal.
Female figurals included Lady Liberty and the confident goddess Fame or Pheme. These appealed to the patriotic and neoclassical-minded purchasers of the later 19th century. In 1891, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens created probably the most controversial lofty lady. Eighteen feet tall, his elegant, richly gilded nude Diana topped New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately she did not function properly and was soon replaced by a smaller example (which also failed as a wind indicator).
Towards the turn of the 20th century, the country entered enthusiastically into the machine age. This cultural change was reflected in weathervane forms: fire engines, airplanes, and automobiles inspired some of the most dynamic and detailed creations of the metalsmith’s art.
Advances in scientific weather forecasting and changes in popular taste eventually led to the decline of weathervane production. By the 1930s commercial manufacture had largely ended. It left a legacy of design excellence and technical ingenuity that is newly appreciated today, as shown in the continuing interest in old weathervanes and the creation of both reproductions and original designs by contemporary artisans.
The weathervane whirlwind is likely to receive fresh energy from a landmark exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, The Art of the Winds, which will be on view until January 2, 2022. The first such show in over 40 years, it offers a comprehensive, in-depth look at American weathervanes from the 18th to early 20th centuries.
Skinner is known for the depth and breadth of weathervanes it offers, with hundreds of thoroughly vetted examples sold, many at record prices. A wide range of these eloquent examples of American art, craft, and industry are available to collectors at all levels in Skinner’s Americana auctions held several times each year. Consigners are invited to contact Skinner’s American Furniture & Decorative Arts specialists at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 508-970-3200.
Catch up on Antique Weathervanes Parts I & II: