A Brief History of Weather Vanes

Low angle view of weather vane on roof against a cloudy sky at sunset.
Weather vane on a building against a cloudy sky at sunset.

Kristopher Kellogg/EyeEm/Getty Images

A weather vane is also called a wind vane or weathercock. This is a device used to show the direction from which the wind blows. Traditionally, weather vanes are mounted on taller structures, including houses and barns. The reason weather vanes are posted in high locations is to prevent interference and to catch the purest breezes.

01
of 04

The Pointer

Horse and arrow weather vane next to a white fence.

SuHP/Getty Images

The key piece of a weather vane is the central pivoting arrow or pointer. The pointer is usually tapered at one end to provide balance and to catch even light winds. The larger end of the pointer acts as a sort of scoop that catches the wind. Once the pointer turns, the larger end will find a balance and line up with the source of the winds.

02
of 04

Early Weather Vanes

Silhouette of a rooster weather vane against a gray sky.

Steve Snodgrass/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Weather vanes have been used as early as the first century B.C. in ancient Greece. The earliest weather vane on record was a bronze sculpture built by Andronicus in Athens. The instrument was mounted at the top of the Tower of the Winds and looked like the Greek God Triton, ruler of the sea. Triton was believed to have the body of a fish and the head and torso of a human. A pointed wand in Triton's hand showed the direction from which the wind was blowing.

The Ancient Romans also used weather vanes. In the ninth century A.D., the Pope decreed that the cock, or rooster, be used as a weather vane on church domes or steeples, perhaps as a symbol of Christianity, referring to Jesus' prophecy that Peter will deny him three times before the rooster crows the morning after the Last Supper. Roosters were commonly used as weather vanes on churches in both Europe and America for hundreds of years. 

Roosters are useful as wind vanes because their tail is the perfect shape to catch the wind. Symbolically, the rooster is the first to see the rising sun and announce the day. It represents the victory of light over darkness while warding off evil. 

03
of 04

George Washington's Weather Vane

Peace dove weather vane atop George Washington's mansion at Mt. Vernon.

Pierdelune/Getty Images

George Washington was an observer and recorder of weather. He made many notes in his journals, though many would argue that his work was erratic at best. His information on daily weather patterns was not recorded in a scientific and organized manner, making the data hard to follow. In addition, many of his observations were subjective and not taken with instrumentation, which was readily available by this time. Yet his legend continues, as tales of the harsh winter in Valley Forge have become a part of the living history of George Washington.

George Washington's weather vane, located at the cupola on Mount Vernon, was one of his favorite instruments. He specifically asked the architect of Mount Vernon, Joseph Rakestraw, to design a  unique weather vane instead of the traditional rooster vane. The weather vane was made of copper in the shape of a dove of peace, complete with olive branches in its mouth. The vane still sits at Mount Vernon. It's been covered in gold leaf to protect it from the elements.

04
of 04

Weather Vanes in America

Whale weather vane against a colorful sky.
Spaces Images/Blend Images/Getty Images

Weather vanes appeared during Colonial times and became an American tradition. Thomas Jefferson had a weather vane at his Monticello house. It was designed with a pointer that extended to a compass rose on the ceiling in the room below so that he could see the wind direction from inside his house. Weather vanes were common on churches and town halls, and on barns and houses in more rural areas.

As their popularity grew, people began to be more creative with the designs. People in coastal communities had weather vanes in the shape of ships, fish, whales, or mermaids, while farmers had weather vanes in the shape of racing horses, roosters, pigs, bulls, and sheep. There is even a grasshopper weather vane on top of Faneuil Hall in Boston, MA. 

In the 1800s, weather vanes became even more widespread and patriotic, with the Goddess of Liberty and Federal Eagle designs particularly favored. Weather vanes became fancier and more elaborate during the Victorian Era. They returned to simpler forms after 1900. Modern weather vanes are made in a huge variety of different shapes and designs.

Sources:

Unknown. "The Legend of Faneuil Hall’s Golden Grasshopper Weathervane." New England Historical Society, 2018.

Washington, George. "George Washington Papers." Library of Congress, 1732-1799.

Ferro, David. "The History of Weathervanes from 2000 BC to 1600 AD." Ferro Weather Vanes, 2018, Rhode Island.

Unknown. "A Brief History of Weather Vanes." AHD, 2016, Missouri.

Unknown. "Weathervanes." This Old House Ventures, LLC, 2019.

Edited by Lisa Marder