Combining functionality, technique and personal and political expression, weathervanes have been a part of the canon of American folk art since the emergence of the field about a century ago. These building toppers were displayed in the country’s first major survey of Americana, organized by the Newark Museum between 1930 and 1932. And in 1965, just four years after its opening, the American Folk Art Museum presented “Turning in the Wind: Weathervanes and Whirligigs” to the public.
Although weathervanes have been at the heart of Americana, “there has been a dire need for more research,” says Robert Shaw, a Vermont-based researcher at Shelburne. “People have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on pallets without knowing a lot of history or provenance.” “American weathervanes: the art of the winds”, opening today at AFAM, will provide an authoritative reference that collectors have missed. Shaw organized the exhibition in collaboration with AFAM curator Emelie Gevalt, and her guide delivered of the same name is now available at Rizzoli Electa.
Weathervanes date from ancient China and Greece, and they arrived in America as early as 1656 when the Dutch Reformed Church imported a copper weathervane for construction in Albany. (The rooster is a reference to St. Peter’s.) Reflecting on the seven-year research effort behind “American Weathervanes,” Shaw told AD PRO, “Going into this project, the thorniest issue was explore the group of manufacturers in greater Boston who were the first to ‘make’ weathervanes. ”The term manufacturing refers to the hammering of copper foil into molds made from wood models commissioned from model carvers. Its introduction at the beginning of the 19th century transformed the production of weathervanes into a commercial enterprise.
Shaw says his research into this historical period continues: “I’m still chasing the first of these guys, Isaac S. Tompkins. There is no way to know what his albs looked like, which is infuriating. Tompkins is my great find and my great frustration.
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After the Civil War, weathervane manufacturing expanded from Massachusetts to New York City, and the products themselves took on a greater variety of forms as manufacturers exploited cultural trends. The American owners have responded in kind. “There was a craze for weathervanes that really took off in the 1880s and lasted until World War I,” says Shaw, noting that consumers likely interpreted the objects as grounding influences. “They lived in an almost constant state of dizzying change, and I think there was an element of nostalgia that played into the attraction.”
The artifacts on display in “American Weathervanes” date from the late 1700s to 1914. In addition to manufacturers in the Boston area, subjects of interest include Shem Drowne, America’s first manufacturer of weathervanes, including the golden grasshopper that crown the famous Faneuil Hall in Boston to date – and the scientific analysis of finishes by Jennifer Mass.
Shaw believes these efforts will help collectors identify and authenticate weathervanes that hit the market, and possibly prevent counterfeits from entering the market. In the meantime, he welcomes the new contributions to the Weather Vane Discourse, saying, “My hope is that this book and this exhibit provide a reliable information base that people can build on.