“It don’t take a weatherman to see which way the wind blows,” Bob Dylan wrote in his 1965 song Subterranean Homesick Blues. And he was right. For at least a millennium, weather vanes have done the same job as meteorologists with infallible accuracy, while also adding ornamental charm to the rooftops of churches, barns and other buildings.
Weather vanes – also known as wind vanes or weathercocks, in reference to those shaped as cockerels – have been around since Ancient Greece. The Tower of the Winds at the Athens agora, or central meeting place, had on its roof a bronze vane in the form of Triton holding a rod in his outstretched hand. The figure of the Greek god of the sea, dating to 50 B.C., rotated as the wind changed direction. This is likely the earliest recorded example of a weather vane.
The Ancient Romans employed weather vanes, as well. Pope Gregory I declared the cockerel, or rooster, to be an emblem of Christianity and of St. Peter. This may have led to the practice of a cockerel weather vane being placed atop church steeples in predominantly Roman Catholic nations. In fact, by the 9th century A.D., weathercocks had become a mandatory addition to every church steeple, by decree of Pope Nicholas.
The Vikings used handcrafted bronze weather vanes as directional devices on their ships. Today, vanes of this type can still be seen as decorative elements on churches and other buildings in Scandinavia.
The practice of placing weather vanes on top of barns was widespread in colonial America. While a single weather vane might have been sufficient for a European village, where townsfolk lived in a more communal environment, that was not the case across the Atlantic, where land was abundant and settlers were largely self-sufficient. Every 18th- and 19th-century American farm or homestead had its own weather vane to assist in weather prognostication.
The earliest American weather vanes were either made by metalsmiths, who hand-formed and hammered the shapes from copper or other metals; or crafted by the farmers themselves, from wood.
Weather vanes were a source of pride to wealthy landowners like George Washington, who issued specific instructions to Joseph Rakestraw, the architect who designed Mount Vernon, to create a bird with an olive branch in its mouth instead of the traditional rooster vane. It’s just one example of early American commissioned weather vanes, which might have depicted angels, eagles, furled banners, sea creatures – a particular favorite in coastal New England towns – or after the turn of the 20th century, motor cars or airplanes.
Both metal and painted-wood vanes are considered quintessential Americana and are highly sought after by today’s collectors of folk art and early American relics. Some of the finest examples are in the collections of prestigious museums, including the Shelburne in Vermont, and the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan.
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