Colonial American Weathervanes and Wind Vanes
American colonists needed practical devices to use in their seafaring ventures as well as their rural farming businesses. Weathervanes were crafted to fill that need.
As early as the mid-1600s, maps of the new American continent had marginal decorations depicting weather vanes or wind vanes. No examples of these survive, but by the early 1700s, Deacon Shem Drowne started making his memorable designs and became the first documented wind vane maker in the New World.
Deacon Shem Drowne Was America’s First Weathervane Maker
Drowne was born in Maine in 1683 to Leonard and Elizabeth Abbott Drowne. Leonard was a ship-builder and the family moved to Boston when Shem was a teenager. In 1712, when he was nearly thirty, he married Katherine Clark and soon afterwards set up his metalworking shop on Boston’s Anne (Ann) Street. His first documented weathervane was an Indian with a bow and arrow, made in 1716 and placed atop a mansion called the Province House in Boston.
Three other memorable wind vanes followed during his career, although he is thought to have made many that have not survived. Drowne lived to be ninety-one years old and is buried in Copp’s Hill Cemetery in Boston.
Drowne’s Rooster Weathervane Made for New Brick Church in 1721
After the success of the Providence House Indian weathervane, Drowne’s reputation as an artisan grew and soon he was commissioned to design a rooster for the New Brick Church on Hanover Street in Boston.
The church was seceding from the Old North Church and needed something different to help establish its identity. Drowne created the vane from two copper kettles and when it was finished, this weathercock stood more than five feet tall, weighed 172 pounds and measured one foot thick.
In 1740, Drowne Created the Banner Weather Vane for Old North Church
Sometimes called the Swallowtail or Long Johns weather vane, this wind indicator design has been copied for generations and is a common sight all over New England. Drowne’s original was made of copper in 1740 and placed on top of the Old North Church where it still sits proudly today. The swallowtail flag shape has many variations and is called by several names, proving that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”.
America’s Most Famous Weathervane Was Crafted in 1749
The Faneuil Hall grasshopper weathervane was created in 1749 in Drowne’s shop on Ann Street and personally hung by him atop the Hall. It was made of hammered copper and is an exact copy of a grasshopper vane used on top of the London Royal Exchange. The giant insect has green glass eyes that have witnessed such historic events as the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre.
The wind vane was probably the first meteorological device ever created by man and has been in use since the first century B.C. In America, few examples of this metal craft survived the colonial period and those that have will always be revered as symbols of man’s ingenuity as well as the skill of the artisan.