Weather Vanes: A Brief History

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
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What Is a Weather Vane?

Horse and arrow weather vane. SuHP/ Image Source/Getty Images

A weather vane, also called a wind vane or weathercock, is 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.

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.

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Early Weather Vanes

The First Weather Vane Featured a Creature Similar to Triton, the Greek God of the Sea
One of the earliest weather vanes in the first century B.C. featured the Greek God of the sea, Triton with a half human, half fish body. NOAA Photolibrary, Treasures of the Library, Archival Photograph by Mr. Sean Linehan, NOS, NGS

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 known as 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 also is the first to see the rising sun and announce the day, and represents the victory of light over darkness, while warding off evil. 

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George Washington's Weather Vane

Peace dove weather vane atop George Washington's mansion at Mt. Vernon
Peace dove weather vane at Mt. Vernon. John Greim/LOOP IMAGES/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

George Washington was a 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 were 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 rather than 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. Today, the vane still sits at Mount Vernon, but is covered in gold leaf to protect it from the elements.

 

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Weather Vanes in America

Whale Weather Vane overlooking sunbeams and clouds.
Whale Weather Vane. 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 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 as well. 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 (1742). 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, but returned to simpler forms after 1900. Today there are many designs that people can choose from to express the identity of their home or business, while keeping informed of wind direction.

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Resources and Further Reading

The Mountain Weather Journal, Fall 2007 Edition http://www.crh.noaa.gov/images/jkl/newsletter/2007_Fall.pdf

The Diaries of George Washington, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/collections/george-washington-papers/about-this-collection/

The Ancient History of Weathervanes, David Ferro, http://www.ferroweathervanes.com/History_ancient_weathervanes.htm

A Brief History of Weather Vanes,  Denninger Weather Vanes and Finials, http://www.denninger.com/history.htm​

Weathervanes, This Old House, https://www.thisoldhouse.com/ideas/weathervanes

Updated 9.23.17 by Lisa Marder