March 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 2
Before television, before color ads in the magazines, even before billboards, advertising, that mainstay of business in America, was already thriving. Of course, it took rather different forms: there was the ancestor of junk mail—the flier handed to people at street corners; there was the sandwich man, almost hidden between his two boards; and there was the weather vane.
We tend to think of weather vanes as purely ornamental objects—indeed they are now eagerly collected as such—which also, while they were at it, showed you where the wind was blowing from. But in fact they were far more practical than that: at a glance they told the consuming public what sort of an establishment they topped.
The dashing trotter on the opposite page, for instance, advertised a livery stable. Modeled after Ethan Alien, one of the great racehorses of the 1970s, and originally gilded, it was one of several vanes listed for sale in the catalog of the Fiske company, a New York manufacturer, and was made sometime during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In this twilight before the advent of the motorcar, the rent-a-horse stable played an essential role in the daily life of both cities and small towns: you could hire anything from a riding horse for a jaunt in the park or a trip to some nearby village to a fully harnessed carriage and pair complete with coachman. For these establishments, the Ethan Alien was among the most popular models.
Other businesses naturally had their own, equally appropriate vanes: breweries, for instance, might be topped by anything from a barrel and stein to a figure of Gambrinus, the mythical king who is said to have invented beer. Streetcar companies could be recognized by samples of their vehicles; even locomotive works had their own signs, the very latest models in steam engines; and all, shining brightly in the sun (they always had gold leaf laid over their copper bodies), could be seen, pointing here or there, above the still-low roofs. Nor were weather vanes confined to cities: in the Northeast especially, most barns had one, sometimes a rooster, sometimes a crosslike pattern. Even private houses advertised their owners: like other manufacturers, Fiske offered a wide choice of initialed metal banners. After that, if you still found the selection too limited, you could always design, or have someone design, your own original vane.
Naturally, part of the vane’s appeal was its implicit endorsement: today, sports figures recommend a variety of products on television, and we know perfectly well they are paid to do so. In the late nineteenth century, a vane in the shape of a famous steed implied that the steed you could hire below would perform just as brilliantly as its model; and like many such claims ever since, the discrepancy between image and reality was often quite shocking. Some of the livery stables that sported Ethan Alien on their roofs probably rented nothing but nags; some of the houses adorned with great, flamboyant metal banners were otherwise extremely modest.
This great variety and abundance of weather vanes was typically American. In Europe, vanes advertised nothing, were limited to roosters, crosses, and the occasional arrow, and were used only in the country. Here, they were too good an opportunity to waste; and in their transition between a European past and an American future, they were also typical of their place and time. Street signs were common in European cities until the end of the eighteenth century, but they were often hard to see: transforming them into weather vanes in America was a brilliant reinterpretation. Now they stood most visibly on high; they actually offered information about the weather; and they provided urban areas with a preview of that eye-catching, jagged outline that would define cities in the age of the skyscraper.
Even better, perhaps, vanes hinted at, without promising, a convenience, although false promises were common enough in late-nineteenth-century advertising. In that unregulated age, nostrums killed, cosmetics blinded, foods were often highly deleterious, and no one was required to prove the truth of their advertising. Still, it was easiest and often most efficacious to let the public imagine what it chose. At the same time, though, vanes were required to serve a purely decorative function. Ethan Alien might promise untold speed, but he also looked spectacular: legs lifted and bent, mane and tail streaming—the advertisement was also a beautiful object.
All of this fitted right in with the mood of an era when, for most people, making money was a supreme good, when it was thought that a shoeshine boy might become a millionaire. The United States was providing itself just then with the most formidable industrial plant in the world; its population, enriched by great waves of immigration, was growing with amazing speed; the business of life was business. What, then, could be more desirable—or more effective—than that handsomest of all ads, a weather vane?