Wind Vanes and Weather Vanes

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Wind and weather have always been major concerns for farmers. Determining the direction of the wind and what it meant to farming was a daily consideration.

By the beginning of the Twentieth Century in the United States, there was a national weather service (established in 1870). In a time before radio, television or computers, its function was one of gathering weather observations. Even transmitting these by telegraph could not reach the general population in a timely fashion.

On the early 1900s farm, the practical determination of wind conditions and what they could mean, were from first-hand observation, experience and local knowledge.

    A wind vane (also called a weather vane) was a pointer that freely rotated on the top of a fixed vertical rod. It was designed to swing easily and point to the direction from which the wind was blowing. The instrument had its beginnings in ancient history, because such information was important to shipping fleets, armies, navies, fishing and farming.

    The wind vane could be as simple as a handcrafted wooden shingle, attached on top of post, or as elaborate as one with a decorative ornament, mounted on the top of a building. The function was the same. It indicated the direction from which the wind was coming. This was achieved by having a balanced mass of equal weight, but with an unequal area for catching the wind.

    The questions that a wind vane could not answer were what a steady wind, or a change in its direction truly meant. Farmers had their own ideas about wind movements, but without the benefit of actual meteorological information, they had to rely on experience, personal observations, the seasons, traditions and country wisdom for their best guess. What direction was the wind? Was it a prevailing wind? What time of the day? What season of the year? Would it bring fair or foul weather? Was it steady or did it vary? How strong did it seem?

The almanac, a yearly handbook of astronomical information and weather predictions, could provide long range, seasonal forecasts for different areas of the country and bits of folk wisdom, but little more. Out in the field, a farmer would toss a piece of grass into the air, to check the direction of the wind.

Wind vanes, both simple and elaborate, were constructed so that the point of least resistance on them faced into the wind. Some wind vanes also had the fixed directional letters, N, S, E and W, which showed the compass positions North, South, East or West. From these four cardinal points, a viewer could determine the direction of the wind by carefully watching where the wind vane’s ornament moved in relation to them.

The points halfway between the four major directions are Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest (intercardinal points). The moving wind vane gave an approximation of the current wind direction.

By knowing which direction that a barn or other structure was oriented, it was simple to determine the wind without the benefit of directional letters mounted to a wind vane on the rooftop. Elaborate wind vanes could be seen more frequently in cities and towns than in the country. Wooden or metal wind vane decorations had long been on important buildings and churches in Europe. Colonists brought along the shapes they had known there and put them to use, as well as creating unique ones, in their new land.

Some of the more popular ornaments on wind vanes included trotting horses, roosters (weathercocks), and other animals, the arrow, stylized metal banners, silhouettes, nautical subjects (ships, fish and mermaids near seacoasts) and patriotic symbols (particularly the eagle). The moving horse was a symbol of speed at a time when the fastest means of personal transportation was horsepower. 

The arrow design was favored as a wind vane on many farmsteads because of its accuracy, simplicity and economy. Using the basic elements of an arrow, with its point, long shaft and fletching (feathered vanes), this design moved easily to point into the wind when mounted on a rotating axis to a rooftop or cupola.

The passing years and weather were hard on wind vanes with their constant exposure to the elements. They had to be repaired or replaced over time. The accompanying photograph shows how an arrow wind vane needed some homemade repairs to its stylized feathers, in order to maintain the proper balance and continue to indicate the direction of the wind.

Decorative wind vanes have continued to retain their appeal as roof ornaments, in spite of advancements in modern scientific instruments for determining wind direction and its speed. Examples of early handcrafted, carved or hammered-copper wind vanes are found in museum collections throughout the country. Some continue their function on historic buildings and churches, while vintage, arrow wind vanes can occasionally be found on old wooden farm buildings, steadfastly showing the direction of the wind, as they have throughout the years.


Wind Vanes are still in use today on modern buildings.