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American Antique Weather Vanes
by A. B. & W. T. Westervelt

The weather vane found a welcome home in the expanding America of the 18th and 19th centuries. It served an important function, but also had humorous and homespun motifs, bold and vigorous design, and spirited air of American individualism and independence.
                                   
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Weathering the Test of Time
by Bob Brooke

 

For the last 150 or so years, weather vanes have become a symbol of America. In the 18th and 19th centuries the weather governed the lives of both seafarers and farmers, thus making the weathervane more practical than ornamental. These ubiquitous objects topped many a building in the 19th century. And while there aren’t as many today, they can still be seen here and there, especially in the rural landscape.



Weathervanes in Early Times
The first documented weather vane honored Greek demigod Triton, the half-man, half-fish son of Poseidon. Triton's role in mythology was to still the ocean's waves, and his bronze likeness topped the Tower of the Winds, built around 48 B.C.E in Athens. The ancient Greeks believed wind had divine power, so they naturally fashioned their weather vanes after Greek gods.

Archaeological studies reveal that Viking explorers had quadrant-shaped vanes attached to their ships. Later in the century, a papal decree ordered the symbol of a rooster be placed on all church rooftops. The rooster represented Peter's denial of Christ, and acted as a reminder for the faithful to attend services.

By the 17th century, weather vanes had become a common addition to the roofs of European and English buildings. Makers also imported them to America for mounting on civic buildings and churches. As the 18th century progressed, weather vanes became an integral part of American history and architecture.

Weathervanes in America
Deacon Shem Drowne produced the earliest authenticated American weather vane, a large copper Indian, made in 1716 for Province House, Boston. A prolific designer and maker of weather vanes, he’s best known for his glass-eyed copper grasshopper, which has sat atop Boston's Faneuil Hall since 1749.

To symbolize the end of the Revolutionary War in 1787, George Washington commissioned Joseph Rakestraw of Philadelphia to make a “Dove of Peace” weather vane for his estate at Mount Vernon.

At the same time, amateur woodworkers and blacksmiths frequently made early American weathervanes using various available metals, including iron or sheet tin. The most common designs featured an endless variety of barnyard animals and horses, as well as Christian symbols, such as the angel Gabriel with a trumpet or a fish.

Alvin Jewell of Massachusetts first introduced mass-produced weather vanes to America in 1852. A skilled designer and pattern maker, Jewell poured copper into iron molds based on carved wooden templates. He then soldered the two identical copper halves together and covered them with gold leaf. In his catalog, eagles and roosters were the most commonly featured designs.

Unfortunately, Jewell's luck changed in 1867, when his scaffolding collapsed while he was erecting a sign. After his death, Josephus Harris purchased his goods, tools, patterns and molds for the princely sum of $7,950. But Harris failed to post the required security, so Jewell's thriving business became the property of Leonard Cushing & Stillman White. Harris finally obtained the funds to start his own weather vane business the following year, and Harris & Company became a direct competitor of Cushing & White. In 1872, Cushing bought out his partner, taking his two sons into the family business. L.W. Cushing & Sons was one of the few makers whose weather vane business survived into the 20th century. One of their most famous is the “Columbia,” patented in 1868.

The last major American company formed in the 19th century was the Westervelt Company, which began in 1883 and ceased operations by 1890. Another noted 19th century American manufacturer was J.W. Fiske of New York City who produced a three-dimensional trotting stallion, the champion trotter Black Hawk, in 1875.

Examples attributed to any of these early makers command top dollar in today's market. An all-time record of $770,000 was set for a horse and rider weather vane, attributed to J. Howard in January 1990—a record that still stands today.

The Golden Age of Weathervanes
The golden age of weather vanes lasted from 1875 to 1895. As weather vanes increased in popularity, makers geared their designs towards all sorts of commercial interests, from farm animals to fire engines to locomotives. They also offered patriotic symbols as well as images of race horses of the day.

The weather vane also found its way to the rooftops of Midwestern barns. In the 19th century, most farmers valued their barns more than their houses. From about 1880 to 1917, traveling lightning rod salesmen offered weather vanes with decorative options such as colorful glass balls and wind directionals in the shapes of horses, cows, roosters and pigs. Sheep are rare while horses are the most common.

These lightning rod weather vanes weren’t nearly as large or ornate as those in New England ones. Generally made of tin or zinc, although there are some made of copper and brass, they were just part of the barn. Most examples still go for less than $1,000, although a rare one, such as an eagle, might reach the $2,000 to $3,000 range. A small trotting horse might still sell for $150 to $250.

Most lightning rod weather vanes clearly show the ravages of time. Many have bullet holes, created during target practice. The materials used, especially zinc and tin, have rusted and corroded over the years. These units were simply part of a barn's roof for 75 to 100 years. In fact, most only came down when the barn did.

As the 20th century dawned, a new era of silhouette style vanes, many created entirely by hand, began. Artisans used heavy gauge brass, iron, cast aluminum, and sheet steel for their creations. While still collectible, early 20th century weather vanes often command a fraction of their earlier counterparts. Copper body, zinc head and gilded examples always sell for a higher price than a silhouette fashioned from another metal.

Determining Value
There are some exceptions. When it comes to weather vanes, older isn't necessarily better. The value of a weather vane depends on four things—age, condition, patina and rarity. Weather vanes produced prior to 1900 were made from molds with detail. Around 1920, the production of weather vanes shifted from handwork to machine work, and manufacturers paid less attention to the molds themselves. To determine age, collectors first look for definition, such as the feathers on a rooster or the head or tail on a horse. Lumpy, formless shapes are indicative of later weather vanes. They’re of less value largely because they aren't as attractive as one with great detail.

But the most important thing to consider when determining the value of an antique weather vane is patina. The current marketplace values original gold leaf, but this is rare. Original gold leaf that has been exposed to the elements for many years will eventually wear off and expose the brown copper beneath. This surface eventually turns green. The longer the exposure, the more beautiful the patina. This surface is very desirable and extremely difficult to replicate artificially. Collectors of weather vanes carefully study real patinas, because there are lots of restorers working with acids and paints who do a very convincing job.

Collectors also know to be very careful when looking at a weather vane with gold leaf since this can be applied today in much the same way as when the vane was originally made. They look for a uniformity of surface. On an original surface, traces of gold can remain underneath and toward the rear of the piece, where the wind and rain exposure was less.

Collecting weather vanes can be difficult because they take up a lot of space. Older ones worth several thousand dollars can’t be displayed outdoors. So weather vane collectors choose their pieces wisely.

Read more about antique weathervanes in the book American Antique Weather Vanes.by A. B. & W. T. Westervelt

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