Decorative Collectibles: Weather Vanes and Lightning Rods

Lightning rods, weather vanes once a crowning glory are making a comeback as decorative collectibles


| December 1998



Weather vane collector Hardin Cox and a grasshopper weather vane

Weather vane collector Hardin Cox (left). This grasshopper is one of Hardin Cox's original creations. More than 20 years ago, he carved a weather vane in the shape of a peanut for Jimmy Carter. That vane was featured in "Tokens and Treasures: Gifts to Twelve Presidents," an exhibition at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and in a catalog accompanying the exhibition.

Those who own ornate lightning rods and weather vanes know the collectibles are both artistic and functional. But some are also historical, telling a story about the place and what the owners did or produced. 

Collectors continue hot after old rooftop items, so values continue to increase. Proof of that is the large number of fakes and reproductions on the market.

One rod I particularly remember was in Greene County, Iowa, adorned with a vertical, fat ear of corn complete with kernels and shucks. I hope the fancy barn it topped also remains there. Besides protecting the barn from lightning, the rod showed that the original owner likely got big yields from the fields behind the barn.

Similar lightning rods with colored-glass balls, pendants and other wind vanes were often mounted on new buildings erected during times of prosperity. In many areas, that would include roughly the years from 1875 to 1916 (excluding the recession of 1893).

Top quality decorative collectibles often were made of hammered sheet copper, using molds, while some vanes had weighted zinc heads to balance a longer arrow's weight. Flat, sheet-iron vanes are most common, with many of those being decorated lightning rods. Seed companies occasionally gave gilded animal-motif vanes, such as roosters or pigs, as premiums. Values of those often run into several hundred dollars, especially if they are unrestored and unpainted.

Lightning rods range from plain ones to those with copper tips, ornamental glass balls or pendants, and weather vanes. The balls were decorative, but they also had a practical side: if broken, they served notice of possible lightning damage.