In a world full of creative repurposing, the transformation of industrial tools, equipment and salvaged architectural items to interior design has become almost commonplace. But, before
upcycling was hip, Americana collectors were rescuing and repurposing all manner of antique utilitarian objects. Among the myriad of objects successfully transitioning from function
to form, weather vanes are some of our most favorite.
One of the earliest instruments of meteorology, weathervanes were critically important to alerting a community of changing weather patterns prior to the twentieth century. The
earliest known weather vane was of the Greek god Triton, mounted atop the Tower of the Winds in Athens, Greece in roughly 48 B.C. Usually mounted on a central building in the
center of town, a weather vane needed to be large, functional and sturdy enough to withstand life in the elements. Becoming a point of pride for a community, weather vanes eventually
developed from a simple, fat banner style to three-dimensional representations of important cultural objects.
The science of weather vanes is relatively simple: mounted on a pole and attached to the highest, unobstructed point on a building, a free-spinning, aerodynamic object is created that will turn with the force of the wind to face the direction of oncoming air currents. Te shape of the objects is only signifcant to the function in so far as the front needs to be narrower than the back. Given the labor involved in making and mounting the vane, care was often taken to use
quality, weather-resistant materials like iron, zinc and copper, with the most accomplished makers utilizing a combination of materials that maximized weight versus durability.
Throughout early Europe, nobility and wealthy landowners often commissioned local blacksmiths to create vanes displaying their coats of arms from sheet iron–simultaneously
identifying their property and providing workers the means to predict impending weather. In the center of town, the tallest building was usually the church and impressive weather vanes
were constructed as a point of pride as well as faith. Referencing St. Peter’s denial of Jesus, large full-bodied and dimensional roosters adorned steeples across the countryside.
In the frst days of America, weather vanes were among the various important tools imported from Europe. As our country developed, local blacksmiths met the needs of farmers andtowns in close proximity; but, by the mid-nineteenth century,factories dedicated to the manufacture of weathervanes haddeveloped throughout New England. Patriotic themes emergedalongside sophisticated representations of animals and symbolicrepresentations of industry and American spirit.
Most common from the period are horses – eitherrunning, leaping or pulling a sulky. Well-developed steer,fsh, roosters and stags were also popular. Some of the mostvaluable examples today are the more rare, fgural vanes of theperiod - including the angel Gabriel, American Indians andLady Liberty. As industrialization brought steam engines andeventually the automobile to everyday America in the latenineteenthand early-twentieth centuries, three-dimensionalweather vanes of locomotives and cars were created. Althoughnot as old, these examples are generally far more valuablethan their eighteenth and nineteenth century counterparts–appealing to a wider variety of collectors.
The height of the folk art market in the early 2000s sawprices for the most unusual and well-developed weather vanesexceeding $1 million. As news about their value circulated,historic vanes were removed from churches and barnsthroughout the northeast and sold to folk art dealers andtheir customers across the country. Today, attractive and earlyvanes can be purchased at auction for a few hundred to tensof thousands of dollars. Form is less important than conditionand surface. Original gold gilt fnish has nearly always wornoff, but collectors covet a lovely green patina of weatheredcopper vanes.
Adapting to nearly any decor, weather vanes mayrepresent a collector’s passion (as in the quill weather vanepictured here, purchased at Garth’s for a former Presidentialcandidate and well-known author); or simply a fancifulinterest. Interested in finding a weather vane to add to yourcollection? Seek well-known folk art dealers or auction firmsand prepare to be patient. Although thousands of weathervanes were created, many succumbed to the elements andrelatively few remain today.