Change in the Weather

| April 2001

Weather-beaten and road-weary, the lightning rod salesman would climb down from his brightly painted, horse-drawn wagon. He might have walked around outside the house, looking up at the roof, shaking his head thoughtfully and sadly. This house, he would say with his look, was doomed. Or he would jump down of the wagon, looking at the house and nodding wildly. Thank God I got here in time. This house can be saved. Either way, it was an act, useful only if the residents were watching from the window. Then he would pull several cases from the wagon and begin the walk to the door. These scenes of barnyard theater were common in rural areas of the United States - from Maine to Missouri, South Carolina to South Dakota - for more than one hundred years.

The approach and subsequent stay of the lightning rod salesman was, those who remember agree, something wondrous to behold. Somewhere between a professor's lesson in doubtful science and the hucksterism of a snake oil 'doctor,' the lightning rod salesman would do whatever was required to sell his wares. Some carried small static electricity generators, which would crackle sparks dramatically over tiny metal houses and barns. The president of the lightning rod companies would almost always be referred to as 'Professor So-and-So.' The salesman would tell how his company's lightning rods had been 'scientifically' engineered and tested, proven to be the best in the world.

Imagine a door-to-door used car salesman - or maybe the social call of a personal injury lawyer - and you may be getting close to what it was like to experience the rod peddler's visit.

There was a need, though, for the showmanship and hard sell. Until the Great Depression arrived and killed them off in droves, hundreds of companies bumped elbows in the crowded, but lucrative, lightning rod marketplace. Spurred on by the competition, companies did what they could to get their name in front of the public. They handed out brand-labeled rulers, pocketknives, potato peelers and more. In the end, however, the companies' best gimmick became the attachments and accoutrements which could be purchased to accompany the rods themselves. Glassmakers were commissioned to produce any number of brightly colored and, often, intricately detailed glass balls, which slid onto the shaft of the lightning rods, purely for decoration. Then there were the weathervanes, which spun around the rod in whirlings of decorative arrows, stars and farm animals. All attachments were designed to fit around the shaft loosely, so as not to impede the path of lightning's electricity.

The additions made them beautiful, but if the lightning rods failed to provide lightning's energy a smooth path from sky to ground (through a copper wire attached to the rod) that beauty would not have been much of a consolation to the farmer who lost his barn or house to a fire.

Until the early part of the last decade, a relative few people considered themselves to be collectors of lightning rods and their decorative parts. It was back then - about eight years ago, by his reckoning - that Ted Storb discovered the hobby. He and his wife were trying to find a unique market niche, which their Rowayton, Conn., antique store could fill, and began buying up lightning rods, the vanes and balls. 'I became interested in restoring them as closely as I could to the original manufacturers arrangement,' Ted says, 'but, while we've discovered over the years that there's a lot of history behind these things, there's very little information to be found about them. There are catalogs and brochures out there in the hands of a few collectors who guard those things with their lives.'