Antique Weather Vanes and Lightning Rods

The first weather vanes were made by the ancient Greeks, but it was not until after Benjamin Franklin became fascinated with lightning that the first lightning rods were used. After Deacon Shem Drowne started making them in the Boston area, almost every home in Colonial America had one that was made out of a material like copper, iron, zinc, aluminum or wood. If you are starting to think about collecting weather vanes or lightning rods, then you may have some questions.

What is a weather vane?

A weather vane is an ancient instrument that is attached to the highest point of a building's roof to tell the direction of the wind. They have five main parts. The rod holding everything together is called the mast or spire, while the letters pointing to the directions are called the directionals. Any decorations added to the instrument are called ornaments, and the circle below the directionals is called the globe. The aging of a metal instrument is called patina, and it is almost always more noticeable on one side than the other.

Who were some of the first weather vane makers in the United States?

Early settlers brought weather vanes and lightning rods at general stores or ordered them from mail-order catalogues after 1850, although those made before that time were usually made in the local community. There were many different makers of weather vanes that collectors prize today, including:

  • J.W. Fiske Works: This company started by Joseph Winn Fiske in Boston before moving to New York City created many cast iron and hammered copper examples showcasing naturalistic foliage.
  • J. Howard & Co: Owned by three-generations of the Howard family in Massachusetts, this company made cast zinc instruments.
  • A.L. Jewell & Co: Maker of highly stylized copper instruments in Massachusetts, this company was the first to offer commissioned weather vanes. After an accident killed A.L., this company became Cushing and Sons who were known for their patriotic ornamentation done in copper.
  • J.R. Mott: This company is best known for its Indian ornamentation that many farmers used to show that they had purchased the property from an Indian. Doing this helped them avoid raids.
  • E.G. Washburne & Co: - After starting out with the molds from Max Weber, this Massachusetts company became a leader in gold leafing and patriotic ornamentation continuing to make instruments until 2005.

What do antique lightning rods look like?

When lightning rods are separate from weather vanes, they have five parts, including the cable that runs to the ground. The very top ends at a point that is attached to a metal rod. Near the bottom of the structure is a glass ball that can be very plain or made of coloured glass. The rod stands on a metal base that usually has two to four legs. A lightning rod's job is to act as a conductor when lighting strikes. They are a method of lightning protection that directs electrical currents through it and down into the ground, where the electricity is less likely to cause damage to structures or danger to people.