Antique American Weathervanes At Brandywine River Museum

This Goat by an unknown maker, 1875–1900, likely adorned a farm building.

CHADDS FORD, PENN. — Weathervanes have a long history of adorning buildings around the world and offering guidance on wind direction. They get their name from the Old English “fane,” which means flag or banner. Weathervanes are among the oldest forms of weather prediction, with mentions in ancient writings from Mesopotamia more than 3,500 years ago. The Chinese talk about strings or flags used to read wind directions in Second Century BC writings. Today, weathervanes are increasingly prized collectibles.

Weathervanes have simple designs, but in order to function, they must be perfectly balanced on their rotating axis and need an unequal area on each side against which the wind can blow. As the weathervane spins to reduce the force of wind on its surface, the end with the least surface area turns into the wind, thus indicating the wind direction. Vanes also must be located on the highest point of a structure, away from other buildings that could affect wind direction.

The first true weathervane is considered to be a bronze structure erected atop the Tower of the Winds in Athens in 48 BC by Greek astronomer Andronicus. The vane, depicting the Greek god Triton, had the body of a man and the tail of a fish and measured between 4 and 8 feet long. The octagonal tower featured a wind deity on each of its eight faces; with a change in wind direction, Triton signaled which god would control the weather that day.

Over the years, Greeks, Romans, Vikings and others employed weathervanes atop structures and on ships. Their popularity exploded when papal edicts defined the cock (rooster) as “the most suitable emblem of Christianity” — resulting in roosters being used as weathervanes on church steeples — and in the Ninth Century decreeing that the figure be placed on every church steeple. It was a symbol to remind Christians of Peter’s betrayal of Christ: “I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shall thrice deny that thou knowest me” (Luke 22:34). Although not originally intended as weather predictors, rooster vanes were easily visible as communal weathervanes, creating the familiar object common today.

Another form of early weathervanes were banners and flags that lords and noblemen flew from castle towers in medieval Britain, France and Germany. Their purpose was not to predict weather, but to help archers calculate wind direction when defending the castle. Over time, cloth flags were replaced by metal structures.

Perhaps following European ecclesiastical precedents, rooster weathervanes were prevalent on early American rooftops and continue to be popular today. A dizzying variety of forms and shapes followed, with craftsmen and cottage-industry manufacturers vying with one another to produce an abundant array of appealing sculptural forms.

This utilitarian yet whimsical American folk art form is the subject of “Which Way the Wind Blows: Antique American Weathervanes,” a fascinating exhibition on view at the Brandywine River Museum through July 28. Organized by Amanda C. Burdan, the museum’s assistant curator, the show comprises 28 weathervanes, ranging in date from early Nineteenth Century through early Twentieth Century.

Early American settlers adapted weathervane designs to their new land, adding wooden arrows, copper Indians and other forms. By this time, wrought iron had replaced copper as the favorite material for making weathervanes, especially with flat designs. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Paul Revere were among the first users of weathervanes.

The oldest documented weathervane maker in the United States, Deacon Shem Drowne, created a banner-shaped vane that has stood atop Boston’s Old North Church since 1740. His energetic Grasshopper vane installed above Faneuil Hall in 1742 was later imitated, mass-produced and offered via mail-order catalogs. An 1880s version, possibly made by L.W. Cushing & Sons of Waltham, Mass., is exhibited. Some consider this the best known vane in the country.

The oldest object in the show is a Stylized Peafowl, dating to the early 1800s, a rather static sheet iron form by an unknown maker. It has the distinction of having once been in the collection of Edith Halpert, a pioneering proponent of American folk and avant-garde art. She promoted American Modernism in her Downtown Gallery, while her American Folk Art Gallery, founded in 1929, exhibited weathervanes like Peafowl. Halpert “drew attention to weathervanes as works of art comparable to modern painting and sculpture,” observes Burdan.

Several omnipresent rooster vanes are displayed, starting with a simple two-dimensional vane cut from a single sheet of iron and with a painted surface and punched-hole eye constituting its modest decorative quality by an unknown maker and dating to the first half of the Nineteenth Century. The standout is a Black Hamburg Rooster made by L.W. Cushing & Sons in the 1880s. It is the full-bodied result of a sculptural carving, making molds for each side of the form, then two halves of copper pressed into the shape and joined together by welding. Burdan notes that Cushing hired a talented “sculptor in wood,” who carved detailed wooden models that elevated the company’s weathervanes to the “realm of fine artists.”

Folks living along the coasts, particularly New England, enjoyed seafaring weathervanes depicting codfish, whales and even sea monsters; examples of each are on view. Farmers, on the other hand, favored vanes of bulls, goats, pigs and sheep; handsome examples of each, mostly late Nineteenth Century, are displayed. Made of wood, copper or wrought iron, many had unusual or whimsical designs.

A broader audience developed for another animal — the horse. Racehorses were all the rage in the late Nineteenth Century, both trotters and thoroughbred steeds. They provided a popular subject with wide appeal to weathervane makers.

“Trotting, or harness racing, became especially popular in the United States,” notes Burdan, “as the belief spread that any horse, not just those bred by aristocrats, might rise to the top of the trotting world.” To meet the demand for racehorses, some makers offered a variety of vanes of famous horses by name.

Two of the most intriguing of this genre are the copper and zinc Harness Racer, in which horse, driver and sulky all appear to levitate in full stride, and a more sedate Morgan Horse with Sulky, also made of copper and zinc.

Printmaker Currier & Ives created portraits of many popular racehorses, making them national celebrities, and providing models for weathervane manufacturers. Promoted in a print as “King of Trotters,” the horse St Julien achieved folk hero status in the 1880s, his record-breaking feats touted in newspapers coast-to-coast. St Julian with Sulky, capturing the famous steed in full stride, is one of many weathervane portrayals.

In addition to racehorses, late Nineteenth Century weathervane manufacturers created images of all sorts of horses. The exhibition includes examples of mounts jumping and prancing, both with and without riders.

“In terms of the beauty of its form and the elegance of its equestrian lines,” says Burdan, “one weathervane surpasses all others.” Known as the “Index Horse” because it was included in the prestigious New Deal era Index of American Design, it is attributed to J. Howard & Company of Bridgewater, Mass., around 1850. Howard and his small shop are “known for constructing his vanes with a combination of cast zinc — for the heavier front — and hollow copper — for the rear — as well as for its extreme stylization of forms. The Index Horse appears almost Byzantine in nature, with an emphasis on the high arch of the neck, sharp curve of the cheek and geometric patterning on the tail.” It is a handsome piece, indeed.

For architecture and history buffs, the most interesting object in the exhibition may be the weathervane that once crowned the Chester County (Penn.) Prison. The prison was designed in 1840 by Thomas U. Walter of Philadelphia specifically to implement a reform program that encouraged solitary confinement for reflection and repentance of prisoners. Later, as federal government architect in the 1850s and 1860s, Walter added the House of Representatives and Senate wings to the US Capitol, and completed the elevation of the central dome.

The large weathervane atop the prison is in the bannerette style of medieval flags that flew over the property of nobility. This more modern version, says Burdan, “features hearts cut from sheet metal, a distinctive heart-shaped arrow tip pointing into the wind and six delicate metal scrolls.” She adds that although this is “hardly the kind of symbolism that one might expect to find atop a prison,” it is actually consistent with the innovative nature of the structure, built to carry out the “Pennsylvania System” of solitary confinement, championed by the Quaker’s Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. In light of the goal of returning reformed prisoners to society, “the weathervane surmounting the Chester County Prison — a Pennsylvania System prison with Quaker roots and benevolent intentions — is indeed a fittingly compassionate symbol for the function of the building.”

In an interesting sidelight, Jennifer Mass, senior scientist at Winterthur, examined weathervane finishes, finding “much…that goes against conventional wisdom.” While many think vanes were continually stripped and refinished, under a microscope she often found “between five and ten layers of finish…, similar to what you might see on a piece of brown furniture.” Mass adds, “The weathering of these gilding and painted layers, combined with the soft verdigris corrosion that forms on the copper base, gives these pieces the rich and variegated finishes that we all so admire.”

All in all, this is a rewarding and revelatory survey of a large swatch of American weathervane history. Appreciation of weathervanes as works of art and desired collectibles has been growing since the 1920s and has accelerated dramatically in recent years. This exhibition documents why so many collectors are drawn to this facet of American folk art tradition, with notable examples fetching in the high six figures.

Today, vanes are considered classic examples of the finest American folk art, with rare and individually produced examples being most highly prized. In modern society, homeowners rarely use their weathervanes for predicting the weather, but they remain highly popular as adornments. In addition to classic styles, new and interesting weathervane styles are always popping up, sometimes using nontraditional materials. Investing in an old or new high-quality weathervane is a fine way to continue the tradition of this special folk art that has its origins in the world’s oldest civilizations. 

As Burdan concludes, “Whether in the Sixteenth Century or the Twenty-First, weathervanes serve as literal indicators of which way the wind is blowing — with no expert or outside guidance needed. In a more allegorical sense, a weathervane, especially in America, is a reminder of an individual’s ability to navigate his or her own course even against a gale of metaphoric winds.”

Burdan’s perceptive and informative essay is available in the museum shop.

The Brandywine River Museum is at 1 Hoffman Mill Road and Route 1. For information, 610-388-2700 or www.brandywinemuseum.org.

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