Weathervanes: A New Direction

For anyone interested in knowing what the weather will be like tomorrow or which direction the wind will be blowing all of the local television channels carry the most current forecast at 5pm, 7pm, 10pm, and occasionally 11pm.  For the more elite who have satellite they can turn on their weather station twenty-four hours a day and find out what direction the winds are blowing.  There is a generation that has no use for the local weather man or the satellite weather channel.  It is a generation that looks to the roof tops for the forecast.  This is a generation of farmers and sailors, the hard workers who had no time to sit in front of a television.  What did they see on those roof tops, weathervanes?

The Word’s Origins Go Way Back.

The word weathervane comes from Old English fane, meaning flags or banners.  They are mentioned historically as early as ancient Mesopotamia, 3500 years ago.  The Chinese also made use of strings and flags in the wind for the purpose of weather forecast, about 2nd century BC.  One of the earliest weathervanes still remembered to day is the life size figure of the Greek god Triton hoisted atop the Tower of the Winds of Athens.  From mankind’s early history there has been a connection to the wind and the forecast of the weather.  The weathervane perched on the rooftops and mounted in gardens or atop ships allowed for the farmer or sailor to observe which direction the wind was blowing and facilitated the trust that was placed in the fates for a favorable direction of the winds.  

early weathervanes

The original design for American weathervanes finds its origin in the pilgrims’ earlier European history.  New Englanders used symbols most commonly associated with those who lived along the coasts: fish, seagulls, and ships.  The early Americans brought these designs with them and then as they established colonies adapted them to reflect their endeavors, primarily pigs and farm animals, Indian figureheads, arrows, and horses.  The weathervane has also been known as a weathercock.  The design of the weathervane is a figure mounted on an upright rod atop an arrow.  The arrow and the figure are set above the direction indicators for north, south, east, and west.  As the wind blows the figure is free to spin around the rod and point in the direction in which the winds blow.  

As the years went by and technology advanced there became less and less need for the weathervane.  Eventually the rooftops of barns and churches and other locations that once been occupied by these relics became bare.  With the advent of the twentieth century there has been a resurgence of history among the younger generation.  Weathervanes have become collectors pieces and represent a part of history that, although no longer serving a functional purpose, bring an aesthetic pleasure to collectors and lovers of art.  Among the collectors’ community they are categorized as folk art sculpture.  In recent years some weathervanes have sold for as much as five figures.

Whether purchasing an older weathervane from another generation or having one custom made, weathervanes can be very expensive.  Weathervanes today, like those of yesterday, are made of metals such as copper, zinc, iron, and wood; treated with chemicals to protect them against the elements of nature.  Before the making of weathervanes became industrialized they were designed and crafted by wood carvers, blacksmiths, and metal-smiths.  The designs can be as elaborate as a filigreed butterfly or as simple as a pine tree, the design reflects the interests of the one who is making the purchase.  Weathervanes can be found on homes, in gardens, on barns, bed and breakfasts, or on church tops.  Today they have become status symbols of a past that the younger generation finds intriguing and romantic; the older generation finds wistful and reminiscent of another day.