Monday, August 5, 2013
Blowin' in the Wind
QUESTION: We just purchased an old farm house and barn. The barn has an old weather vane mounted on top of a cupola on the roof. My husband and I aren’t sure if we should restore it or leave it as is. What can you tell me about weather vanes in general and whether we should have it restored?
ANSWER: It doesn’t really matter how old your weather vane is, as long as it’s not new. Old weather vanes atop old barns are an American tradition and today are worth some bucks, even if they’re weathered.
Weather vanes have been blowing into the wind for as long as farmers and sailors needed to know the direction of the breeze, but they have traditionally performed another function as well. Silhouetted against the sky for all to see, a weather vane was often an emblem that declared to the world the profession of the person who mounted it: a quill for a lawyer, a dory for a fisherman, a prize Holstein for a dairy farmer.
The earliest known weather vane, dating to 48 B.C., was an image of Triton—a Greek god with the head and torso of a man and the tail of a fish—mounted on The Tower of the Winds in Athens.
Weather vanes didn’t gain popularity until nobles in medieval England flew banners from their castle walls emblazoned with their coats of arms. After the Normans conquered England, these "fanes,” as the banners came to be known, were made of iron with designs cut into them. Since what wouldn't bend might break, makers soon rigged them to turn with the breeze. By the English Renaissance, the fane had become a vane, a simpler and more functional device affixed atop a merchant's shop as often as on a knight's battlement.
The colonists who settled America brought their traditions with them, including the weather vane. While it's likely that the first colonial vanes were crudely cut from wood, by the late 1600s several Puritan meeting houses were topped by iron vanes. Boston's Old State House, erected in 1713, sported a swallow-tailed banner with an arrow, and by 1740, America's first craftsman of weather vanes, Shem Drowne, had begun fashioning copper vanes for Boston's public buildings.
Prior to the 1850s, blacksmiths created most vanes. And though they devoted considerable skill and imagination to them, forging iron vanes or beating them out of copper was largely a sideline, something a blacksmith did on request.
Blacksmiths in coastal New England towns, where watching the wind has always been vital, made vanes in the shape of ships for sea captains, cod and flounder vanes for fishermen, and leviathans for the whale hunters on Nantucket and at New Bedford. In-land, farmers sawed crude wooden vanes in the shapes of plows and farm animals, or found a blacksmith who could fashion more sophisticated vanes for their barns.
After the 1850s, metalworkers like Alvin Jewell, of Waltham, Massachusetts, began manufacturing copper vanes using templates and molds, a process that was faster than the ancient repousse method, in which they pounded copper into the desired shape. Speedier manufacturing processes meant lower costs, and Jewell found that his patterns sold quite well through mail-order catalogs.
L.W. Cushing, perhaps the best-known weather vane manufacturer of the 19th century. He added them to a collection of over 100 silhouette and full-bodied vanes in his catalog. Other weather vane companies soon opened for business, including J.W. Fiske and E.G. Washburneboth of New York City, and Harris &Co. of Boston.
It was during the height of the Victorian Era when weather vanes were one of the most sought after items. They began appearing on everything from stables to gazebos. Prices ranged from $15 to $400 for the vane, its brass turning rod, a copper ball, and a set of brass cardinals indicating the points of the compass.
The boom in weather vanes didn't last long, only 50 years or so, but during that period hundreds of designs were sold throughout America: banners, locomotives, fire engines, Statues of Liberty, clipper ships, river steamers, cannons, even sea monsters and dragons. Still, the traditional designs—roosters, horses, and other animals—remained the most popular.
By the early 20th century, changing tastes and simpler home design—particularly the decline of the cupola—caused a decline in vane popularity.
People began to be collect weather vanes as folk art about 40 years ago. Many sought vanes made by factories that originally sold them through catelogues, so handmade vanes weren’t even an issue. The highest amount ever paid for a weather vane was for a factory-made, copper Indian chief vane from 1900 that sold for $5.8 million at Sotheby’s in October 2006. Others have sold for prices from four figures on up.
Scarce and unusual weathervane forms, such as mermaids, cars, trains, and firemen, are very popular with collectors. The most common ones, however, are horses, roosters, and cows which tend to fetch lower prices.
The majority of collectors like old copper vanes that have a green or verdigris patina which helps to date it. But the biggest problem are the vanes made now from original molds from defunct factories.
Though manufacturers generally don’t conceal the replicas’ origins, subsequent sellers often do.
The weathervanes that command the highest prices have not been restored. They have a patina—often noticeably different on one side thanks in part to prevailing winds and decades of exposure to sun, sleet, rain, snow and birds.