Among one of the most collectible items of Americana is the humble weathervane. Seen in all shapes and sizes, weathervanes, or as some people call them wind vanes, depict many facets of American life.
Imagine a family of settlers, eking out a living on the frontier of what is now Appalachia. Survival was often tenuous and depending on maintaining an agrarian lifestyle. Farming and the keeping of livestock was a fulltime activity and success or failure, even life or death could depend on the fortunes of the weather. Understanding the shifting wind made having a weathervane just as important as a good breaking plow or a flock of chickens.
In the spring a southern wind could with it warm air from the south. That same southern wind could be the onus of strong storms and torrential rains. Any sudden shift in the wind could be an indication of storm that may bring a gentle shower or a hail storm. An entire crop or herd of livestock could be wiped out in a matter of minutes. The old adage like a dying calf in a hailstorm had roots in reality.
Living on the frontier meant that people needed to have a variety of essential skills. Sewing, woodworking and blacksmithing were the skills that made life in the wilderness possible. Clothing, shelter and the tools needed to survive were made by hand. Even making a simple wind vane might have required the knowledge to forge pieces of iron into a functional weathervane. Many of these metal weathervanes survived the rigors of time and the elements. Some weathervanes were constructed from various species of wood, but only a precious few survived.
Early weathervanes very often depicted symbols that were of some significance to the maker. Barnyard animals of all kinds were popular subjects for weathervane makers. Horses, pigs, donkeys, goats, cows and chickens, even dogs and cats were the source of inspiration for anyone making a weathervane.
It should come as no surprise that weathervanes reflect the cultures in which they were created. Dating all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, wind vanes have played an important in art and culture. In the Americas, craftsman and artisans were often called in create unique weathervanes in much the same way that an artist would be commissioned for a painting, sculpture or other artwork.
Thomas Jefferson, at his home at Monticello, commissioned a weathervane that was completely unique for the times. Not satisfied with just an average weathervane, Jefferson installed a wind vane that would proof to a precursor of the modern wind gauge. Jefferson’s weathervane could be observed from inside his home, avoiding the inconvenience to going outside to see which way the wind was blowing.
As with so many other popular items of Americana, the Industrial Revolution ushered in a period of mass production. What emerged was transference of technologies from Europe to the Americas. Increases in iron production lead to the development of new methods of metal stamping. Weathervanes which would have been made by hand began to appear as stamp replicas. Whether it was the figure of the Angel Gabriel blowing his horn or copies of the peace dove weathervane commissioned by George Washington, the world of weathervanes changed forever.
By the late eighteen hundreds manufactured weathervanes began to appear in city shops and country stores. To this day, weathervanes are a reflection of the American history. The same figures, shapes and themes found in the handcrafted weathervanes of the past can grace the homes of suburbanites, farmers and city dwellers. No longer needed to predict the weather, wind vanes and weathervanes can still help us tell which way the wind blows.
Weathervanes, like the wind, can come in all shapes and sizes. But it is the wind that dominates much of our imagination and even our mythology.
Sometimes a weathervane is not needed to know which the way the wind is blowing. Like many other natural phenomenon, the wind has a history and lore all its own. Almost every culture through human history has created names and great tale of mythological legend based on the wind phenomenon. Climate and terrestrial events have always been held in high regard, from lunar and solar eclipses to great wind storms. For ancient peoples and cultures from the four corners of the world, the winds have gained notoriety and are described through a variety of different names.
The snow eater is a warm, dry wind that blows in the Northern Rockies across the northern Plains can raise the temperature thirty to forty degrees in a matter of minutes. Seen during the winter months in the high Plains, the Snow Eater or Chinook wind was recognized by First Americans. The term snow eater accurately describes the result of a Chinook wind, where the sudden inrushing of warmth causes snow to melt. In the early nineteen forties, a snow eater wind blew through the tiny South Dakota town of Spearfish. Located on the eastern edge of the northern Black Hills, Spearfish the most dramatic rise in temperature ever recorded in the lower forty eight states. In a span of two or three minutes, the snow eater raised the air temperature an astonishing forty nine degrees Fahrenheit.
One of the most powerful Chinook wind events was recorded on the front range of the Colorado Rockies, near the city of Colorado Springs. In nineteen eighty two, a Chinook wind event was recorded at over one hundred forty per hour.