The History of Weather Vanes

The earliest recorded weather vane, built by the astronomer Andronicus in 48 B.C., was of the Greek god Triton for the Tower of the Winds in Athens. In ancient Greece, the winds were thought to have divine powers and weather vanes depicting the gods were common atop villas of some of the wealthy landowners.

 

In Rome, in the ninth century A.D., the Pope decreed that all church domes or steeples in  Europe should be topped by a cock, as a reminder of Jesus' words to Peter (Luke 22:34), that the morning following the Last Supper, the cock would crow once Peter had denounced Him three times. Since then, “weather cocks” have adorned many European and American church steeples.

 

The predecessors of weather vanes were likely the banners that flew from medieval towers in BritainNormandyand Germany. The word "vane" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "fane", meaning "flag".

 

Deacon Shem Drowne—America’s first documented maker of weather vanes—created vanes for several well-known sites:  his famous grasshopper vane tops Faneuil Hall in Boston (1742); the banner atop Boston’s Old North Church (1740); the rooster vane (1721) now on top of First Church in Cambridge; and a copper Indian figure on the Province House in Boston (1716).  Patriots like George Washington marked the end of the Revolutionary War by commissioning a weather vane in 1787 called the “Dove of Peace” from Joseph Rakestraw, for Washington’s home in Mt. Vernon.  Thomas Jefferson also topped his home at Monticello with a weather vane, attached to a pointer in the ceiling of a room directly below so he could monitor the wind from inside his home. 

 

Americans favored weather vanes in patriotic designs in the early 1800s, including the Goddess of Liberty, and the Federal Eagle.  By mid-century, weather vanes of famous racing horses were modeled to look like Currier and Ives prints. Throughout the nineteenth century, many weather vane manufacturers mass-produced vanes in a myriad of designs. Some of the more famous makers were Harris & Co., A. L. Jewell & Co., L. W. Cushing,  J. W. Fiske, and E. G. Washburne & Co.

 

As the nineteen century closed, Victorian buildings boasted fancier weather vanes with elaborate metalwork embellishing large portions of roof space. After 1900, weather vane manufacturers turned to a simpler style, often depicting hunting scenes.

 

Today, weather vane artists recreate many of the antique weather vanes of Europe and America, also sculpting new forms, using various modern materials.