The form of American folk art most prominently featured in our timed online Americana sale “Colorfully Cast: A California Collection” (opening for bidding on January 31) is the windmill weight, an appealing relic of late 19th and early 20th century farms.
The thirty-three weights featured as a significant component of this auction were assembled by discerning collectors over a long time and is the most extensive collection Skinner has sold. They are all of cast iron, and as you’ll see, many are in the shapes of roosters, together with a fair number of bulls, a horse or two, a heart, a horseshoe, and bell. The weights include rare forms, unusual examples, and old painted surfaces.
Now is about the time you might ask, “but what exactly is a windmill weight?” which is a great question, and one I have asked before! New technology and industrial mechanization early in the second half of the 19th century led to a more quick, cheap, and compact construction of windmills. But these new “vaneless” designs, comprised of a series of blades attached to a narrow beam rotating at the top of a tower, needed a heavy counterbalance at the other end of the beam for the windmill’s blades to keep them steady and pointed into the wind as it shifted.
This essential function had previously been handled on many windmills by a “tail,” like a weathervane. Correctly positioning a windmill’s blades maximized the power a mill could produce for farm tasks that depended on sustained amounts of high energy – like grinding grain or pumping water and, later, producing electricity. Windmill weights were installed at the end of the beam opposite the mill’s blades and varied in size and weight in direct proportion to a windmill’s size. Generally, the larger and heavier the weight, the larger and more powerful the windmill. Two of the weights in this sale – the rare solid cast iron Mogul weights, tip the scales at 116 or 117 pounds. The collection altogether weighs nearly a ton!
Often, the weights were made in foundries at or near the manufactories where the corresponding windmills were built. This began to mean that certain windmill manufacturers (Elgin Wind Power and Pump in Elgin, Illinois; Dempster Mill Manufacturing Company in Beatrice, Nebraska; and Fairbury Windmill Company in Fairbury, Nebraska; to name just a few), became associated with what they produced. Certain shapes, sizes, and forms of weights were recognizable to the point where they began to function as advertisements for their makers, like a hood ornament on a car.
As a result, many weathervanes are referred to using the manufacturers or model’s name – the Dempster Horse, the Fairbury Bull, the Mogul and Hummer Roosters. Others, more charmingly, have taken on nicknames based on physical characteristics of the iron casting –the “Rainbow Tail” (referring to the graduated arches of the rooster’s tail), the “Barnacle Eye” (for the protruding nature of the bird’s eye) and, perhaps most delightfully, the rare “Screw-Leg” Rooster, all of which are represented here.
We in the Americana department love the way that objects of a particular era can be appropriated as décor in a modern collection. The companies who made these weights knew they had decorative appeal, and I would think they’d be quite pleased and surprised – blown away, even! – to know that collectors in today’s market seek them out!
Antique Weathervanes, Part III: Function and Form