Weather vanes have become something of a darling among antique and folk-art collectors in recent years. It is easy to see why. They are beautiful pieces of Americana. The intricacy and workmanship applied to an object no one will ever see up close is art for its own sake. They surprise us when we see them near by. They are bigger than they seem when seen from afar. Weather vanes have the romance of rural life and a practicality that make utensils so attractive to many collectors.
Athens, the birthplace of much of western culture, was also the probable home of the weather vane. The earliest recorded weather vane exists in a description written at the time, which said it was constructed of bronze and depicted a merman-like deity, the god Triton. It was huge by weather vane standards at approximately 6 feet in length. During the Roman era weather vanes topped most expensive homes and were usually religious in theme.
During the Middle Ages Vikings used the weather vane on their longboats. Unlike the vanes made by the Greeks and Romans, the Norse used a utilitarian ‘quarter-circle on a triangle’ shape. Reflecting the seas influence on shore life, the ship’s vanes was soon the excepted shape and most churches in medieval Scandinavian had one.
It is difficult to prove whether or not one of several possible Popes decreed that every Catholic church should have a rooster mounted on it as a motivational tool. The rooster was supposed to represent Saint Peter and his famous denial of Jesus, or more correctly three denials. It was all intended to remind the faithful to attend church.
Before long the sensibility of using the rooster on top of the tallest structure around as a weather vane became obvious. It is somewhat ironic that despite having started as Papal order, Protestant churches kept the practice of placing rooster weather vanes atop their steeples long after Catholic ones had abandoned it.
It was through this influence that the weather vane came to America. The earliest recorded vane in North America was a rooster vane that topped the Dutch Reformed Church in Albany, NY. Other marvelous examples fill museums all over the North East.
Most Americans in those days did not live in town; they lived on farms. Since farmers could not see the weather vane on top of the church steeple from their homes and because they, as much as anyone, needed to know which way the wind was blowing they placed weather vanes on top of their barns. Unconstrained by religious tradition and untrained as craftsmen, colonial Americans decorated their vanes with the things they lived with. Early colonial vanes usually depict animals, ships, Native Americans, as well as angels and roosters. Those pioneers would probably think it funny, but we now regard them as early American folk artists.
After America won her independence from England patriotic themes began to appear. As soon as the eagle became the national symbol it appeared on barn’s weather vanes. Curiously about the time that the eagle began to gain real ground as a weather vane fixture the era of idiosyncratic handmade weather vane was coming to an end. By the middle of the 18th century most weather vanes were the work of manufacturing companies.
While wood has been a fairly common material for weather vanes at times it is not ideal, wood rots and weathervanes are useless unless in the weather. As a result, we have few surviving examples of wooden weathervanes. An antique wooden vane in excellent shape is a valuable find indeed.
The overwhelming majority of weather vanes any collector will ever see are made of metal. The most common metal for weather vanes is probably copper. It is softer than most metals making it easier and less expensive to work with. However, old habits die hard and early Americans tended to use the materials their forefathers had used.
Most Northern Europeans tended to use iron for their vanes while the French showed a fondness for zinc. Eventually the advantages of copper won out and by the middle of the 18th century most weathervanes were constructed from it.
The rise of copper also denoted the rise of three-dimensional, hollow bodied figures. Flat figures would always represent the majority of weather vanes made but the more life-like 3D figures began to gain appeal. By using a carefully carved wooden sculpture sheets of copper could be hammered into just about any shape.
The wooden carving would be sawed into pieces that allowed the various intricate shapes to be formed. Iron molds were cast from the wooden pieces and each could be used to shape thousands of copper weather vanes.
Other molds were shaped from lead rather than iron. Lead was softer that iron and was said to give a much more faithful rendition of the wooden sculpture than did the harder metal. The practice was eventually abandoned because of the dangers associated with working with that much lead.
Loretta Crawford is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques Etc. She can be reached at Content and Solutions.