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Friday, May 9, 2014


           Though not an antique buff, there are some old, historic items that intrigue me, like weathervanes.  I faithfully check the rooster vane on the coal shed roof, but doubt his accuracy as he tips drunkenly backward. My efforts to keep him upright last until I’m off the ladder.   
            Two requirements assure that a weathervane works; they must be made with unequal surface areas and they must be precisely balanced over their rotating axis. As the weathervane spins to reduce the force of the wind on its surface, the end with the least surface area turns into the wind indicating wind direction.
            Weathervanes evolved from banners and the term vane from the Anglo Saxon word “fane”, which means flag or banner. Initially, banners were used to show archers wind direction. Later, metal replaced fabric and a land holder’s insignia or coat of arms was put on the vane before it was balanced, then mounted to turn in the wind. The first documented weathervane was mounted on the Tower of Winds in Athens, Greece in the first century BC.
In the Americas, Deacon Shem Drowne is famous for multiple vane related reasons. He is credited with making America’s first weathervane in 1716, and for making two notable vanes. His grasshopper weathervane on Boston’s Fanueil Hall overlooked such famous events in our history as the Boston Massacre and ensuing Boston Tea Party. He also made the six foot long copper swallow tailed vane on the Old North Church in Boston, the building made famous by Paul Revere’s ride.
            Roosters are the most common symbol on vanes. Beyond being early risers up on rooftops to greet the dawn, their frequent use is also due to a papal decree in the mid 800’s. Reportedly, Pope Nicholas I required that all European churches be adorned with a rooster to keep followers from the sin of denying Christ. The connection comes from Luke 22:34 in which Jesus told Peter that before the rooster crowed Peter would deny three times that he knew Christ.
About the time of the papal decree, the use of weathervanes by the Vikings allowed their ships to sail out of sight of land and use wind direction to return. The simple vane mounted on a ship’s mast gave Vikings a new confidence to explore further from land.
            Our neighbors restored their 1900 era barn a few years ago, replacing rotted wood and rusted siding, window frames and glass, and adding cupolas. A trotting horse weather vane created by their nephew provided the finishing touch to the restoration project.
            In today’s antique weathervane market, the hand-made vanes of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s are most valuable. Before the 1850’s they were made individually, the most valuable by the repousse method of hand hammering copper sheets into the desired shape with no mold. Others were made by carving a mold in wood, making a cast of the mold in iron then hammering sheets of copper into the iron mold. Two pieces were soldered together to make a three dimensional figure. Some were two element pieces, while others were very complex with multiple elements. The least valuable antiques were manufactured and stamped out in quantity. However, with the decrease in family farms, vane manufacturers were out of business by the Great Depression so their products are also collectables.
            After roosters and horses, most common weather vane elements are cows and eagles, with fewer pigs, rams, deer and dogs. Even rarer, therefore more valuable, are human figures and unusual subjects. Reportedly, a weathervane at a 1982 Sotheby’s auction brought $82,500. More recently one brought $770,000 and a 1900 circa Indian chief sold at auction for $6 million in 2006.
Maybe we should all take a closer look at the vane hanging crookedly on a sagging outbuilding roof. If you want to part with it, it might be a mortgage lifter.