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.’
Another problem with restoring the sets to their original state, Ted found, was that, since everything could be ordered separately, there was seldom a single, truly original state for any of the parts. Some of the less faithful of the original rod salesmen, he says, actually worked for more than one company and would mix and match rods, balls and vanes if the customer so chose. In the end, Ted says, collectors must choose whether or not to attempt to create originals or just try to collect whatever stokes their interest.
‘There are a whole bunch of people who just collect the glass balls,’ he says. ‘They may have a rod and stand, but they’ll often just use them as a display and have several balls on one rod.’
Though they are one of the more popular and valuable attachments, showing up as decorations everywhere from farmhouses to Manhattan skyline apartments, many of the glass balls are still very accessible in price and easy to find. A quick scan of the more popular online auction sites turns up dozens. But Ted says collectors used to have even easier ways of getting their hands on them. ‘You’d just knock on doors and ask people if you could buy the stuff off the roof,’ he remembers.
Many people date the change in the collection weather to the 1995 publication of what is still considered the definitive book on the subject of glass lightning rod balls, Rod Krupka’s The Complete Book of Lightning Rod Balls. According to Eileen Kelly, editor of Crown Point, a newsletter for collectors of lightning rods and their attachments, Krupka’s book introduced people who were already collecting antiques to this new venue of obsession. ‘In that book, there was a sketch of every type of ball that we knew had been made,’ says the Winfield, Ill., resident.
Ted Storb says that, yes, the balls can be found in price ranges suitable for most any collector, but those interested in taking on the hobby should acquaint themselves with the field in order to avoid paying too much. ‘For example,’ he says, ‘there are balls which are called ‘Moon and Star’ balls – they are imprinted with crescent moons and stars – which are very common in white and blue. Found in cobalt and red, they cost about $100 a ball. In grey-blue, they cost around $7,500 and the very rare orange and yellow versions can bring prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.’
After the basics of getting to know which type of ball is which, there’s also an element of the artist’s eye to selection the collectibles. The balls were each hand blown by artisans contracted by the lightning rod companies. The process, therefore, led to fluctuations and imperfections in each ball, meaning that there are no two exactly alike.
To further complicate matters, there are companies now producing reproductions of the more famous and collectible balls, which are, for obvious reasons, worth much less than the origfusion, says Ted Storb, but warns that, ‘unless you know for sure that it’s an original, you should be very careful about paying too much.’
The weathervane attachments to the lightning rods have their fans, too, and several types are considered quite rare. While any number of types of horses – standing, leaping, rearing – are available and most are relatively common, sheep and ram vanes, are beginning to bump against a $2,000 price range. And, it seems, the further from a domesticated farm animal you can get, the rarer the find. Fish and beaver ornaments, for example, are some of the rarest.
Eileen Kelly notes that some companies didn’t confine their glass contracts to the production of decorative balls. Some weathervanes feature arrows with glass tails, a fact which seems to amuse her. ‘It’s just interesting to remember that the whole point of these delicate-looking objects was to last through some very strong weather,’ she says.
Another draw for collectors of lightning weathervanes is that it’s a less expensive way, sometimes, to get your hands on some history. Many lightning rod vanes were produced, on contract, by companies like Jewell, Cushing and Fiske, renowned producers of non-lightning weathervanes. (Some of their traditional vanes can reach what Ted Storb calls ‘multi-$ 100,000 categories’ and have begun to attract thieves, who have stolen them from rooftops in Virginia using everything from ladders to helicopters.)
But there are collectors who avoid mass-produced lightening weathervanes. Some farmers, due to either their original vane being damaged or simply because of a creative personality, would make their own ornamental figures for their lightning rods. These one-of-a-kind, homemade items are prized as folk art.
The poor lightning rods themselves, however, have few fans. Ask about lightning rods and you will get weathervanes this, glass balls that. Without their attachments, the spare, unassuming copper poles lack something. For the collector who must have the original parts, however, a complete set-up demands an original rod. Tracking down the right rod can be complicated by the fact that most lightning rod companies were regional. National and Kretzer lightning rods can be found most easily around St. Louis, where they were first produced, and some Nebraska collectors are still partial to the Lincoln-produced Shinn rods.
No matter which part or brand collectors choose to focus their attentions on, Eileen Kelly says that, in her opinion, the lightning rods’ beauty is only a small part of why people want to collect them. ‘Lightning rods are a real connection to a rural past. People today want to keep that feeling alive of what they see as a simpler time.’
Ted Storb provided the photos of the weathervanes on the opening page of this article and of the ram on page 14. He and his wife, Jeanne, own and operate Storb Antiques in Rowayton, Conn. They can be reached at 319B Rowayton Ave., Rowayton, Conn., 06853; (203) 866-6244.
Eileen Kelly provided all the ephemera pictured above. She and Tim Cagle edit Crown Point, a lightning rod collector’s magazine. For a copy, contact them at P.O. Box 23, Winfiel