When I began to consider a topic for my Colonial Quills post, I wondered how Colonial Americans forecasted their weather. I came across the fascinating history of weathervanes.
Weathervanes, also called “wind vanes,” are one of the oldest forms of predicting weather. They get their name from the Old English word “fane,” which means flag or banner. They were used as far back as 3,500 years ago in Mesopotamia; by the Chinese in the 2nd century B.C.; by Vikings in the 9th century (bronze depictions of animals and creatures of Norse myth); and by ancient Greeks and Romans on their homes.
Following a papal edict, 9th century Europeans put weathervanes on their church roofs to ward off evil and to proclaim good faith. The edict 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)
It follows that the rooster was a popular shape for weathervanes in Colonial America. Colonial craftsmen soon began to branch out with designs that included farm animals such as horses, pigs, cows, sailboats, fish, and whales. Indian figures and eagles were also popular.
Colonial American farmers and sailors used weathervanes and almanacs to help predict weather. It may sound archaic, and mistakes were made, but weathervanes helped with agricultural production and fishing, and so, were a valued contribution to the success of our country.
To commemorate the Revolutionary War, George Washington commissioned a weathervane of a “Dove of Peace” to put on his home at Mount Vernon. When it arrived in August 1787, Washington was in Philadelphia and was concerned about its installation. He wrote to his secretary/nephew, "Great pains...must be taken to fix the points truly; otherwise they will deceive rather than direct - (if they vary from the North, South, East, and West) - one way of doing this may be by my Compass being placed in a direct North line on the ground at some distance from the House."
Dove of Peace weathervane on the cupola
of Mount Vernon.
Thomas Jefferson designed a weathervane so he could read it from inside his home in Monticello.
At his blacksmith's shop, Paul Revere had a weathervane in the shape of a codfish.
Weathervanes must be attached on the highest point of a structure, away from tall buildings, balanced on their rotating axis. Wind blows against a weathervane spinning it, and the end with the least surface area turns into the wind, indicating the wind’s direction.
Here's a montage of some interesting weathervane designs.
Susan F. Craft is the author of the Xanthakos Family Trilogy - The Chamomile, Laurel, and Cassia - inspirational romantic suspense that spans from 1780-1836 and from the Blue Ridge Mountains, to Charleston, SC, and to the NC Outer Banks.