Weather vanes delivered crucial information to a wide variety of nineteenth-century professionals: they updated merchants on trade winds used for shipping, notified farmers of conditions affecting their crops, and warned individuals of impending inclement and dangerous weather. Far from being solely utilitarian, weather vanes often demonstrated a multiplicity of artistic skills; examples dating from the early nineteenth century were often carved in wood or hand cut from sheets of iron before being covered in gold leaf or painted. By the middle of the century, industrialization had transformed the previously artisanal trade. Manufactured weather vanes were made in pieces by hammering or stamping sheet metal onto molded half forms by a machine. These were then soldered together and either painted or gilded. Companies like Jewell and Cushing shared their wares via catalog, allowing consumers to purchase from afar.
Yet despite changes in design and manufacture, the iconography of weather vanes, generally animals, still often held symbolic or cultural meaning. According to many folkloric traditions, snakes were good omens for fertile lands and water-laden clouds and so appeared atop farmhouses. Doves, with biblical links, could adorn weather vanes atop churches or chapels. These objects were also responsive to popular culture; toward the end of the nineteenth century, weather vanes featuring prominent racehorses like Black Hawk, comparable in fame to today’s star athletes, became widely available.
Colby students: Want to see your organization represented as a unique, handmade weather vane? In conjunction with A Usable Past and Weather Vanes and Trade Signs, the Museum’s Student Advisory Board invites students across campus to explore their own identities and create designs for a weather vane that would represent their club, team, dormitory, or other group. What aspects of your group’s identity are most crucial to communicate to the broader community? Is that identity best represented iconographically, such as a polka-dancing club creating an accordion weather vane, or would a more enigmatic symbol better emblematize your organization? We encourage you to consider these questions as you find creative ways to represent yourselves to the rest of the Colby community.
Weather-vane designs along with brief explanations should be submitted (in PDF format) to Nora Hill by November 1. Submissions will be evaluated by a jury composed of student representatives from the Museum’s Student Advisory Board, Colby faculty, and the Museum staff. The winning design will be announced on November 10 at the Museum Mashup, an event featuring student performances inspired by the Museum’s current exhibitions. This design will be fabricated by a local metalsmith and displayed at the Museum before being given to its designers to exhibit as they wish.
For more information on the history of weathervanes, see Seth Thayer Jr., “Weather vanes,” in A Usable Past: American Folk Art at the Colby Museum, ed. Lauren Lessing. (Waterville, ME: Colby College Museum of Art, 2016): 152.