The History and High Art of Weathervanes

The weathervane atop Philadelphia's Independence Hall
The gilded weathervane atop Philadelphia’s Independence Hall is 12 feet long and weighs 120 pounds. At 168 feet off the ground, it is also one of the historic site elements least noticed by tourists.

One of the country’s most impressive weathervanes has perched atop Philadelphia’s Independence Hall for two centuries or more (above). The massive, gold-leafed device is 12 feet long and weighs 120 pounds. The building was completed in 1753 as the Pennsylvania State House and later renamed Independence Hall. Some modern references say the weathervane was installed as part of an 1828 renovation of the structure, but period illustrations from 1752 and 1800 appear to show the weathervane in place much earlier.

Aside from early American life’s other major sources of power — falling water and draft animals — wind was the driving force of large sections of the economy. It was a free and renewable source of power. The fleets of military and commercial seagoing vessels — and every other business connected to them — were utterly dependent on wind. The windmills that pumped water made farming possible. They played a crucial role drying crops like corn and wheat to prevent spoilage. They also ground grain into flour to make the food society needed. Wind-driven saw mills cut and shaped the primary building material — lumber. Wind was a core economic force that directly supported huge numbers of jobs. It also provided clues important for predicting the near- and long-term weather. Some public clocks were powered by wind. For all these reasons, the presence, absence, velocity, and direction of the wind were major concerns in the daily life of that era. That’s what made weathervanes such important information instruments.

By the mid-19th century, steam and coal were surpassing water and wind as primary source of industrial energy and weathervanes began their transformation from crucial industrial devices to the decorative and often highly valuable art form they remain today.

Most Valuable Weathervanes

The most expensive antique weathervane ever sold is a 62″ high Indian chief weathervane made by J.L. Mott Iron Works. It was sold at Sotheby’s in New York City in 2006 for $5.84 million. A five-foot-long copper train weathervane that spent a century catching wind atop the Woonsocket train station in Rhode Island sold at auction for $1.2 million. A three-foot-long copper 1910 touring car weathervane made by the W. A. Snow Works in Boston went at auction for $941,000.

Below are samples of some of the more noteworthy weathervanes I’ve encountered and photographed that are still in use or in private collections.

The eagle weathervane atop the firehouse of Haddonfield New Jersey's Haddon Fire Company No.1
Haddon Fire Company No.1, established in 1764 in Haddonfield, NJ, features an eagle weathervane with a four-foot wingspan. The weathervane was installed on the new firehouse completed in 1952.
A Canada goose weathervane atop the headquarters building of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey
The headquarters building of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Galloway Township, NJ, which sits astride the Atlantic bird migration flyway, features a Canada goose weathervane.
A medieval style weathervane
Some traditionalist weathervanes nod to the earlier medieval versions of the instrument — when royal banners were used to monitor wind direction.
A galloping horse and rider weathervane atop an Atlantic City casino
Other contemporary weathervanes are part of modern marketing campaigns, like this cowboy atop Atlantic City’s Wild Wild West casino.
A traditional horse weathervane
The most frequently featured animals on weathervanes are roosters, horses, fish, and eagles.
The drag weathervane atop the Elizabeth Haddon School in Haddonfield, New Jersey
A modern dragon weathervane is a bit the worse for wear, having lost a wing.
A large cow weathervane
The competition to locate and acquire authentic weathervanes from earlier eras is fierce among well-heeled collectors. This five-foot long cow and separate calf weathervane once sat top dairy farm barns.
A leaping stag weathervane used as a room accent
Highly valued as unique accents in collectors homes, antique weathervanes like this leaping stag go for very high prices.
A rare Horse Jumping Through Hoop weathervane
One of the rarest horse weathervanes is Horse Jumping Through Hoop by A.L. Jewell & Company in 1865.
Sulky horse and rider weathervane
A gilded horse and sulky weathervane from the late 1800s.
A pig-shaped weathervane
A pig weathervane appears to have been hit with buckshot.
A weathervane of St. Tammany, Chief of the Delaware Tribe
Displayed atop an apothecary cabinet is a weathervane of St. Tammany, Chief of the Delaware Tribe.
Two fox weathervanes as mantle decorations
Well-heeled collectors frequently obsess over a single kind of weathervane animal, like the fox.
A fox weathervane displayed in a shelf unit
Another fox weathervane that exactly fits its top shelf niche.