From the beginning of time, humans have needed to know about weather to plan activities like farming and travel. Weather vanes were a meteorological tool in a pre-technology age. Despite the emergence of modern weather gauging techniques, the weather vane remains a much-loved and functional ornament for homes, barns and gardens.
What is a Weather Vane?
Weather vanes were created to indicate wind direction. A properly designed weather vane points into the wind, showing from which compass point the wind is blowing. To work correctly as a directional device, a weather vane's ornament must have both unequal area and equal mass on either side of the center.
Origin of the Name
The word "vane" comes from the Saxon "fane," meaning "flag." Originally, fabric was flown from medieval towers so that archers would know the direction of the wind. Later, metal wind indicators took the shape of the owner's coat of arms. The Bayeaux Tapestry, commissioned by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, includes a depiction of a craftsman installing a rooster weather vane atop Westminster Abbey.
Ancient Weather Vanes
The oldest documented weather vane was a bronze Triton atop the Tower of the Winds built in Athens, Greece, in the first century B.C. The tower was eight-sided, with each side representing a compass point, and decorated with friezes of the Greek gods of the winds. Weather vanes were also common on Viking ships, allowing the sailors to navigate even when they were out of sight of land.
Roosters as Weather Vanes
In the 9th century, a papal decree ordered that every church should have a cock or rooster on its dome, as a reference to Peter's betrayal of Jesus and a reminder of the Christian faith. Rooster weather vanes, or "weather cocks," have been popular ever since.
Colonial Weather Vanes
The earliest American weather vanes made of painted wood have not survived, but those which were hand-forged of metal or hammered copper still exist. Roosters, farm animals, ships and whales were all popular colonial weather-vane shapes. George Washington commissioned a "dove of peace" weather vane, which still turns on the cupola at Mount Vernon.
Shem Drowne, a colonial deacon and coppersmith, was responsible for the famous grasshopper weather vane that decorates Boston's Faneuil Hall, and also the banner weather vane on Old North Church (memorable as the site of Paul Revere's "one if by land, two if by sea" signal).
Weather Vanes as Americana
Weather vanes reflected the changing landscape as Americans settled the interior of the country. Horses, arrows and Indians were common western themes. Patriotic themes were popular in the 1800s, and weather vanes of the time might be in the shape of an eagle or the goddess of liberty. Very elaborate weather vanes were added to Victorian mansions in the late 1800s.
Today, early American weather vanes are valued as highly collectible folk art. Unusual, well-crafted handmade weather vanes are sold for thousands of dollars. An original Indian chief weather vane was recently auctioned for $5.8 million.