top of page
  • by Karen Cummings

Blowing in the Wind

"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." This was true when Bob Dylan wrote those words, it's true now, and it has been true since the early days of the ancient Greek civilization. All you need is a weather vane. And if you just look around—or rather, look up— you'll see that there are some beautiful and unique examples of weather vanes, both old and new, throughout the Mount Washington Valley.

Anthony Velardo of Tamworth has been looking up at weather vanes for years. An interest in photography led him to become an avid researcher into the history of weather vanes, a hobby that has taken him on travels throughtout the eastern U.S. searching for prime examples of the art. "I'm a camera buff, and would always take pictures of the vanes on top of buildings," he explained, "and pretty soon I started reading and studying everything I could about them."

Sometimes it can be a dangerous hobby, driving along while scanning the tops of spires or cupolas for a new weather vane. "People get very suspicious when you start taking pictures of their weather vane," said Velardo.

Weather vanes are very valuable items. Some antique ones are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and those produced today also command a hefty price. A genuine American folk art, today weather vanes grace interiors as accent pieces, serve as distincitive symbols for commercial establishments such as Howard Johnson's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, add an architectural decoration to spires and cupolas, as well as still serving their original purpose on the top of buildings and barns.

Before the days of weather satellites and sophisticated instruments, determining which way the wind was blowing was the only means available to forecast the coming weather. The Greeks discovered a device similar to a weather vane while studying the forces of nature. They constructed "heroloquims," which they called "towers of wind." These pointed the direction of a gale or a breeze to all in their vicinity. Weather vanes have been in constant evidence since that time.

Proof of the prevalence of these decorative yet practical devices can be seen in old paintings of medieval English castles which are often adorned with weather vanes. A papal edict in the 10th century decreed that every Roman Catholic Church should carry a symbol of a rooster as a reminder of Peter's betrayal of Christ—"...the cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice." St. John 13:38. Hopefully the wayward would get the message and refrain from betraying Christ, or at least remember to attend service.

Weather vanes are now often seen on the spires of Protestant churches. "I'd say that 90 percent of them have some sort of weather vane adorning their steeple," said Velardo. Vanes took their position on Protestant churches when Sir Christopher Wren, surveyor to the Crown in England, had the opportunity to rebuild a series of churches in London after the Great Fire of 1666. Being the first to place a single spire on parish churches. Wren also designed many distinctive weather vanes to place atop his graceful creations.

Many of the vanes in Europe were of the bannerette type that were shaped like flags and recalled the heraldic devices used in the Middle Ages. These were designed with either a decorative filigree or initials to make an elaborate silhouette against the sky, in addition to telling which way the wind blew.

When the European settlers came to the New World they set about trying to recreate the environment of their home country in the harsh new settlements. An abundance of wood meant that it was the substance used for most things. With the settlers from Norway, Sweden, and Germany having an especially strong tradition in the craft of wood carving, men always kept their jack knives at the ready, and whittling was a common activity. Having only themselves to rely upon made it imperative that the colonists should know which way the wind was blowing to be able to predict the weather, and hence, the best planting and harvesting time.

The first weather vanes in the new country were brought over on long voyages from Old Country. The expense proved much too great. Being an inventive and self-reliant crew, the colonists soon began making their own. When the first wooden weather vane was carved in the early 1600s, an American folk art was born. Early American vanes were copied from the styles in Europe, as was all early American art. Individuality soon took over, however, and the American versions of the device took on a look all their own.

"Most of the early vanes were just crude affairs,'" said Velardo. ''They would carve arrows, whales, fish, horses, just simple things out of wood and put it someplace where they could see it when they got up in the morning. Knowing which way the wind was blowing would give them an idea what the weather might be. Then they could decide what work to do that day—whether it was a good day to plow the fields, go on a trip, or stay inside if bad weather seemed on the way."

There are not many examples left of the wooden variety of weather vanes made during this era. Those that have been found are highly prized by collectors. Often these early vanes, made to be useful, also served as the only enhancemenf to an otherwise crude colonial home.

As the colonies grew, blacksmiths plied their trade. Those who could afford it bought their weather vanes

from these craftsmen. Vanes began to be made from iron, sheet steel, and hammered copper. It still was a hard existence in America and the style of life put the emphasis on the practical. Making weather vanes gave the ironmonger a rare chance to display his artistic skills and creativity. The vanes of this era were decorated with relative or whimsical motifs, such as birds, animals, fish, initials, or dates when the house was built. "Often they would indicate the trade—whales or fish for a fisherman—or they were used for an advertisement,' explained Velardo.

Many metalsmiths earned a reputation for their creations but the foremost maker of weather vanes that this country has known was Shem Drowne. "In 1742, he created the famous grasshopper that still adorns Faneuil Hall in Boston," related Velardo. "It was modeled after the vane over the Royal Exchange in London and is supposed to signify prosperity." An example of the full-bodied style of vane, the grasshopper is made of two halves hammered into a mold and then fitted together to form the completed image.

The advent of the industrial age in the middle 1850s took weather vane production out of the hands of the individual craftsman and into the factory. Two New England manufacturers of weather vanes, E. G. Washburne Co. of Danvers, Mass., and Kenneth Lynch & Sons of Wilton, Conn., have been in continual business for more than a century. Currently, they produce both reproductions and innovative new designs for their customers.

In these modern times, it seems that weather bureaus, weather radios, weather satellites, and television weathermen have deemed the weather vane a purely decorative device. Yet, pause a minute and consider the number of times you believed those sources...when your picnic was ruined...when you dressed for a coming storm and turned out warm...the so-called sunny days when you were left drenched when it poured. To be sure, even in these highly technical times, it may be wise to check a weather vane and follow the adage printed in the Old Farmers Almanac in 1851:

"When the wind is from the east,

it's bad for man and beast.

When the wind is from the south,

it's too hot for them both.

When the wind is from the north,

it's of very little worth.

When the wind is from the west,

it is the softest and the best."


bottom of page