Weathervanes are much more than a simple tool for detecting the weather. Here in the Monadnock Region, they’re also a treasured part of our collective past, a tradition stretching back for centuries.
Historian Glenn A. Knoblock of Wolfeboro has made a particular study of these Yankee icons. “Weathervanes are obviously a very visual art, but they’re also something that is ubiquitous to our landscape,” Knoblock said. “We don’t even think about them or the stories they tell.
“Whether they’re on top of meeting houses, barns or town halls, they all have histories, concerning how they developed. Here in New Hampshire, they started out as a forecasting instrument, but eventually became an architectural adornment. Now, they’re an example of highly-collectible folk art.”
Knoblock has written about 15 books on New England history, focusing on such regional structures as covered bridges and old meeting houses. But it was his love of weathervanes that led him to write the recently-published “Weathervanes of New England,” on which he collaborated with photographer David W. Wemmer.
“Weathervanes are unusual, because they can’t help but catch your eye,” he said. “But there’s another story behind each one, which remains largely hidden.
“The colonies really started out with very simple arrow weathervanes. Here in New Hampshire, however, banner examples became very popular, representative of flags that were flown over castles in Europe and England.
“These are very prominent, especially in the Monadnock Region. You can see them locally on the steeples of meeting houses in towns such as Hancock, Jaffrey and Fitzwilliam.”
Of course, fashions and time tend to change tastes, and other variations began to appear on the scene.
“Many of these new weathervanes were based on national trends,” Knoblock explained. “After the signing of the Constitution, eagle designs started to proliferate on town halls, mercantile buildings and banks.
“Then there’s the horse weathervane, which is sort of a perennial design, basically the same, whether it’s made now or 150 years ago. What not many people know is that these weathervanes originally came in 15 or 20 different designs, all based on famous racing horses of the day.
“When you think of the Currier and Ives racehorse prints of the 1850s and 1860s, you realize just how well known these forms were.”
Knoblock said that, from colonial times up through the 19th century, the tradition was to have weathervanes gilded, an eye-catching if somewhat expensive embellishment.
“Quite frequently, these weathervanes would be painted ochre or yellow, if you couldn’t afford gilding,” he said. “These days, people prefer the green copper patina, which gives it that weathered look. That would have been an anathema to people in the old days.”
Knoblock pointed out that the earliest weathervanes would have been made primarily of wood and were an important agricultural tool.
“The farmers really did need to know which way the wind was blowing in those days,” he said. “They had to see if there was a Nor’easter on the way, or if it was time to plant the fields or bring in the harvest.
“By the 1800s, however, the practical aspect fell away, as different ways of predicting weather came along. So, weathervanes became more of a decoration.”
Knoblock said that the weathervanes are much more than tools or ornamentation — they actually inform the landscape of rural New England itself.
“When we hear the term ‘skyline,’ we tend to think of New York or Chicago, which have these readily recognized landmarks, such as the Brooklyn Bridge or the Sears Tower,” he said. “New Hampshire has its own set of skylines as well, not only in places like Portsmouth or Keene, but in small towns as well.
“Most of these are weathervane-related. For instance, you might find one on a cupola on a barn or a local church or meeting house. These are landmarks that guide people around, and let them know where they are and where they’re going.”
For those looking to learn more about the history of weathervanes, Knoblock will present “New Hampshire on High:
Historic and Unusual Weathervanes of the Granite State” Tuesday, July 23, at 6:30 p.m. at the Nesmith Library, 8 Fellows Road in Windham. This program is made possible by a generous grant from the New Hampshire Humanities and is for ages 13 and up. Registration is required. Call the library at 432-7154 to register or for more information.