The History of Weathervanes

As weathervanes become increasingly nothing more than collector’s items – auctioned to the highest bidder both online and off – it’s easy to forget that once upon a time these were essential weather instruments. They were highly practical and no farm or village cared to be without one.

If you earned a living by working out doors – think farmers, think loggers, think gardeners – then you needed to know what the weather was likely to bring. For most of human history, you didn’t simply switch to the weather channel or flip open the paper to read the latest meteorological update. You had your own weather eye and weather sense.

A century ago, you couldn’t find a barn anywhere in the United States that didn’t have at least a rough vane atop the roof – a rooster maybe, whose beak would indicate from which direction the weather was likely to come. Or perhaps a trotting horse. Heck, there were even racing pigs!

But plenty of weathervanes were little more than arrows that were set up to swivel on a simple rod. They were made by people who were too busy working to worry too much about the décor of their rural landscape. And they needed to know what was going on with the weather. Could you hay tomorrow? Plant another bed of spinach? Make a weathervane and figure it out!

In truth, if you exclude rain gauges, when it came to reading the skies and making predictions, the weathervane was your best guide. And this was true from the days of ancient Greece – when many archaeologists believe the earliest weathervanes were made and used regularly – to colonial America.

If your a collector of these lovely and elegant instruments, you can take some pride in the fact that you are helping to preserve a critical piece of history. It’s well and good that we have far more complicated tools for figuring out in tomorrow we’ll need our umbrellas. But once upon a time we could do it with a lot less. Weathervanes – regardless of whether they are on display in our homes or still atop bars – keep us in touch with those old days.

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