The Origin of Weather Vanes

While weather vanes today are largely considered decorative accents, their roots in history are both deep and fascinating.

 

The beginnings of Weather vanes or wind vanes can be traced to some of our earliest recorded history when ancient civilizations used cloth flags or strips of fabric to show the direction of the prevailing wind. Needing something more durable, they began to use wood or hand worked metal in place of cloth.  Our modern word Vane is actually derived from the Old English word “fana”, meaning “flag”.

According to archaeologists, wooden wind vanes were in use in Mesopotamia as far back as 4000 years ago, and a Sumarian-Akkadian dictionary even lists several names for them. In the 2nd century B.C Chinese literature mentions a bird-shaped wind-vane made of brass. Historically, these wind indicators were used for many purposes. Archers used them to adjust for windage. Sailors used them to set their sails, Farmers employed them to help forecast the weather. And, in ancient Greece, a weather vane sitting atop an octagon shaped tower was even used in an attempt to divine the source of the weather!

 

Sometime around 50 B.C, the Greek astronomer Andronicus mounted a wind vane in the shape of Triton (half man half fish) on the top of the Octagon-Shaped Tower of the Winds in Athens. Each side depicted a different deity and the vane indicated which member of the Pantheon was influencing the weather on a particular day!

In the 9th century A.D, Viking Long Ships had swiveling gilded flags known as veðrviti, (weather indicator) made from bronze and brass mounted on their stems. As the Vikings were Christianized, some of these veðrviti were removed and given over to the custody of churches in Norway and Sweden where they have survived on steeples and church roofs to the present day

In Medieval Europe weather vanes were mounted on castles and important buildings as insignias and to indicate windage in battle. 

On churches, rooster weather vanes began to appear as popular religious symbols. The oldest known rooster weather vane in the world is the Gallo di Ramperto, "Ramperto the Rooster". It was made in 820 AD by Bishop Ramperto to adorn the bell tower of a church in Brescia in Northern Italy. Almost 1200 years later it is in remarkable condition and can still be seen in the city museum.

Rooster Weathervanes truly exploded in the late 800s when Pope Nicholas I decreed that all churches loyal to Rome must show the symbol of a cock on their dome or steeple. The cock was symbolic of the Repentance of Peter recorded in the Gospels, “Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.’ And he went outside and wept bitterly." John 18:13-27. 

This scene from a 11th Century Norman needle point (The Bayeux Tapestry) shows a rooster weather vanes being placed on a church in England.

Weathervanes in the Americas

America's earliest weather vanes were imported by colonists from the European continent where the prevailing forms had been the above mentioned flags or the coats of arms of local lords and barons, and the roosters and sundry angelic beings found on churches.

However, American colonists, being somewhat more independent-minded, were quick to put their own creative design spin on things, and all sorts ingenious subject matters were the result.

In 1716 a colonial coppersmith and tinplate worker named Shem Drowne created the first authenticated American weather vane. It was a gilded Native American Archer representing the form on the old colonial seal of Massachusetts Bay Colony and was mounted on the cupola of the Providence House in Boston, which was later to become the governor’s mansion.

 

Drowne went on to create several more historically significant weather vanes including the famous four foot long gilded Grasshopper mounted on top of Boston's Faneuil Hall.

Weather vanes were featured on many of Colonial America’s most historically significant buildings. At Monticello, The ever-inventive Thomas Jefferson attached his weather vane through the roof to a pointer in his ceiling below so he could see the direction of the wind while still inside the house.

At Mt Vernon, George Washington designed a very large octagonal cupola tower that opened to the main house directly above the central stairwell thereby providing a natural draft throughout the house. He commissioned the now iconic “Dove of Peace” weather vane with an olive branch in its mouth to memorialize America’s victory at the end of the Revolutionary war.

As America expanded and developed, the weathervane art which reflected it grew and matured as well. In townships along the coast weather vane ships, fish, shorebirds, wales, and mermaids began to populate the rooftops, while in more rural areas farmer-craftsmen, being of their own mind, created their own array of animal inspired forms.

 

The earliest American weather vanes were made one-at-a-time, by hand. Each one was a unique, individually created work of art. But by the 19th century, new methods were developed that allowed identical, full-bodied weather vanes to be mass produced in factories using cast iron molds. By the latter half of the 1800s the vast majority of weather vanes were made in these factories and some of the larger weather vane factories even printed catalogs and marketed their weather vanes using traveling salesmen.

During this period weather vanes became quite fashionable and ornaments depicting railroad and farm equipment, firefighting equipment, mythological figures, whimsical art and patriotic emblems exploded in popularity. By the 20th century, automobiles, bicycles and airplanes had joined the mix. These early weather vanes have now become highly sought after and are an important part of American folk art. Some rare weather vanes have actually sold at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

 Today, with the development of more sophisticated weather instruments, weather vanes are primarily used for aesthetic purposes. They are most commonly found on rooftops as architectural accents, but they are also popular in yards and gardens as outdoor décor.

 At The Lake Burton Trading Post, we have chosen our weather vane product line because we believe, across the board, it captures the essence and timelessness of classic American style. From stately full-bodied ornaments to simple garden and holiday decorations, we have weather vanes for every budget and occasion. Each one is, in the best traditions of America craftsmanship, expertly and carefully hand crafted and hand finished with pride . We think you will enjoy exploring our collection of weathervanes and hope you will find one that suits your needs.