History of Weathervanes

What do the Vikings, the Greeks, the Pope, and George Washington have in common? They have all helped to contribute to the curious and colorful history of our modern weathervanes.

Weathervanes get their name from the Old English fane, which means flag or banner. Weathervanes also go by the name of "wind vanes." Weathervanes are one of the oldest forms of weather prediction. Weathervanes are mentioned in the ancient writings of Mesopotamia, from over 3500 years ago. The Chinese also talk about strings or flags being used to read wind direction in writings dated to the 2nd Century B.C.

These days, with satellites, computers and other equipment, we take weather prediction for granted. However, long before the invention of modern technology humans used these archaic but ingenious devices to make predictions about climate trends. They may have made a few more mistakes, but the time-honored use of weathervanes and other primitive equipment undoubtedly helped societies stabilize their agricultural production and thus evolve into our modern civilization.

Weathervanes have a simple design, but in order to function, they need to be perfectly balanced on their rotating axis. They also need an unequal area on each side that the wind can blow against. Additionally, weathervanes must be located on the highest point of a structure, and away from other tall buildings or structures that may affect wind direction.

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, and thus indicates the wind direction. The world’s largest weathervane is located on the shore of White Lake in Michigan and was manufactured by Whitehall Products. It stands 48 feet tall and sports a 26 foot long arrow that points in the direction of the wind.

The first "true weathervane" is often thought to be a bronze structure that was erected atop the Tower of the Winds in Athens in 48 B.C. by Greek astronomer Andronicus. This weathervane took the shape of the Greek god Triton, who has the body of a man and the tail of a fish, and was between four and eight feet long. The tower was octagonal, with a different wind deity on each of the eight faces. With a change in wind direction, Triton indicated which god would control the weather that day.

Archaeological evidence suggests that many ancient Greeks and Romans used weathervanes on their homes as well. These weathervanes took the shapes of various wind gods and mostly adorned the homes of wealthy landowners. Other weathervanes of this early period were found in Syria, in the form of a copper horse and rider, and in Constantinople, with a bronze figure of a man.

The Vikings are also credited with using a form of weathervane to predict the weather in the 9th century A.D. These simple designs were made of bronze and other metals and replaced traditional cloth flags on Viking ships. They were frequently quadrant-shaped and depicted an animal or creature from Norse myth. These weathervanes can still be seen today in Sweden and Norway.

The popularity of weathervanes exploded when a papal edict from the 9th century A.D. help bring the weathervane to the skies of most of Europe. Rome declared that every church in Christendom must be adorned by a cockerel, 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 shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me." (Luke 22:34)

While these cockerels were at first not intended as weathervanes, they were eventually combined with the weathervanes that already dotted many church steeples to create the familiar rooster-shaped weathervane common today. This is probably due to the fact that the cockerels atop church steeples were easily visible from anywhere in town, and so were a logical choice to become communal weathervanes.

Another unusual form of the early weathervane can be found in medieval Europe. In Britain, Germany, and Normandy lords and noblemen flew banners and flags from castle towers. These flags were not intended to predict the weather, but actually helped archers calculate the direction of the wind when defending the castle. Through the years, the cloth flags were replaced by metal structures.

In medieval Europe, peasants and commoners, especially peasant foot soldiers, also used a form of these cloth wind vanes, called bannerets. These bannerets are probably the source of another common weather monitoring device, the windsock. The long tails of these bannerets were also the source for many traditional weathervane designs, especially during the 19th century Gothic revival period in the U.S.

In 18th and 19th century Europe, weathervanes design evolved dramatically. For example, wrought-iron began to replace copper as the favorite material for making weathervanes, especially with flat designs. By the 19th century, the Victorians were adding new and interesting motifs to the common weathervane, including mythical creatures and animals.

As European settlers arrived to the New World, they imported the culture of weathervanes. The settlers often found the weather of their new home rather challenging, so they made ample use of weathervanes to predict the weather and improve their farming practices. In the early American colonies, the best-made weathervanes were made in Europe and imported. Some examples of these vanes can still be found dating back to the 17th century.

In the United States, weathervanes gained certain fame through our founding fathers. America’s first President, George Washington, commissioned a weathervane in the shape of a "Peace Dove" for his home at Mount Vernon to commemorate the end of the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson attached a weathervane to his home at Monticello and cleverly arranged the vane so that he could tell the direction of the wind from inside his home. Even Paul Revere had a weathervane in the shape of a codfish atop his blacksmith’s shop.

Weathervanes were also popular among rural populations of the U.S. This is probably due to the fact that many farmers were isolated from the local towns and couldn’t rely on the communal weathervanes located on the church roof or Town Hall.

As their popularity spread, home owners in the U.S. began to create unusual and whimsical designs. People who lived on the coasts enjoyed weathervanes in the shape of ships, sea creatures, and other nautical designs. Other popular designs included horses, wild animals, and angels, and patriotic symbols such as the Federal Eagle and the Goddess of Liberty, which were popular after the Revolutionary War. Weathervanes at this time were made from wood, copper, or wrought iron, and other materials.

There is actually a "Golden Age" of weathervanes in the United States, which is thought to be the latter half of the 19th century. As the country grew and expanded westward, unusual weathervanes began to pop up on the houses, flagpoles and buildings of the new cities and towns of this young country. Railroads, farming equipment, firefighting equipment, and exotic animals from other countries were all displayed with pride.

Many of these classic style weathervanes from the last century are being sold as pricey antiques. These historic weathervanes have been sold for anywhere between $50,000 to more than $750,000. Now that's an expensive weathervane!

In our modern society, home owners rarely use their weathervanes for predicting the weather, but weathervanes remain extremely popular as an adornment. There are many excellent companies producing top quality durable weathervanes.

In addition to the classic styles, new and interesting weathervane designs are always popping up. Investing in a high quality weathervane is a great way to continue the tradition of this unique folk art that has its origins in the oldest civilizations of the world.

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