The Faneuil Hall Weather Vane
Eighty feet above the ground, atop the Faneuil Hall cupola, sits one of Boston’s most cherished symbols – the grasshopper weather vane. Crafted by Shem Drowne, and installed in 1742, it has moved with the breeze over a town and then a city for more than 270 years. Ben’s Edwards ancestors knew Faneuil Hall and its weather vane well. When Peter Faneuil’s gift of a market building with a meeting hall above was constructed, Ben’s sixth great grandfather Captain Benjamin Edwards was in his mid 50s and living in the North End. Originally a Boston sea captain and then a merchant, he served as a tax collector for the town between 1745 and 1751. Annually Captain Edwards participated with the other town officials in a walk (or visitation) of the town which concluded with a meeting at Faneuil Hall.
In this building known as the “Cradle of Liberty” numerous meetings were held to protest British taxation. Another one of Ben’s ancestors, a member of the Sons of Liberty named Alexander Edwards, was likely in attendance at some of these Faneuil Hall meetings. A lifelong resident of Boston, he was 41 when the American Revolution began.
Key events in the life of the Faneuil Hall Grasshopper:
November 1 – The grasshopper weather vane, built by master craftsman Shem Drowne, is installed atop Faneuil Hall. Constructed of copper and gold leaf, with glass doorknobs for eyes, it measures 52 inches long and weighs 38 pounds. Shem Drowne was America’s first documented weather vane maker. Born in Maine, he married Katherine Clark in Boston in 1712. Shem Drowne lived to the age of 90 and is buried at Boston’s Copp’s Hill Burying Ground.
November 18 – An earthquake shakes the weather vane from its perch and it falls to the ground. It is repaired by Shem Drowne and his son Thomas at their shop on Ann Street (today’s North Street) in the North End. This was the Cape Ann earthquake – the largest ever recorded in Massachusetts. It occurred at 4:30 am, lasted more than a minute, and is estimated to have measured between 6 and 6.3. More than 1,000 chimneys were damaged or toppled in the town, the sides of a few brick buildings came down and many windows were broken.
January 13 A fire at Faneuil Hall destroys the interior of the building and damages the weather vane. Thomas Drowne repairs the grasshopper, Faneuil Hall is rebuilt according to John Smibert’s original plans and it reopens to the public in 1763.
June 28 – Thomas Drowne inserts the following note inside a copper container in the grasshopper’s vest or stomach area: The headline reads “Food for the Grasshopper” and the note continues “Shem Drowne made it, May 25, 1742. To my brethren and fellow grasshoppers, Fell in ye year 1753 (1755) Nov. 13, early in ye morning by a great earthquake by my old Master above. Again, like to have met with Utter Ruin by Fire, by hopping Timely from my Public Station, came of the broken bones and much Bruised. Cured and Fixed. Old Master’s son Thomas Drowne June 28, 1768, and Though I will promise to Discharge my office, yet I shall vary as ye wind.” Today, this note is in the archives of the Boston Public Library.
Maintenance work is performed on the grasshopper when Faneuil Hall is redesigned and expanded by architect Charles Bulfinch. The cupola, where the weather vane sits, is moved from the middle of the building to the East end.
During the War of 1812, the weather vane was used as a lie-detector for potential British spies. An individual was suspect if he did not know the identity of the unique item atop Faneuil Hall.
The copper container inside the grasshopper’s vest is filled with coins and papers as a time capsule of sorts for future generations. Some of these items were later removed.
The weather vane is knocked off when a flag is lowered as part of a reenactment of the British evacuation of Boston. Damages were repaired and additional items from 1889 (coins and newspapers) were put into the copper capsule inside the grasshopper’s vest.
Additional repairs are performed by a local coppersmith.
The weather vane is removed so work can be performed on it. The copper capsule inside the grasshopper is opened, the contents from 1889 are examined and replaced inside the container along with a business card and note from Mayor John B. Hynes.
The weather vane is removed for regilding.
January 4 – The weather vane, valued at $300,000, is stolen but discovered about a week later hidden in the eaves of the cupola under some old flags. It was damaged and needed to be repaired and regilded in 23-karat gold. The 1889 coins and other items were missing from the copper capsule. After repairs were completed, Mayor Kevin White added a note to the items that remained in the copper container along with a gold and silver coin.
The grasshopper is removed and regilded during the renovation of Faneuil Hall. It is briefly displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1991 alongside Shem Drowne’s earliest weather vane, the Indian Archer circa 1716 that once stood atop the Province House in Boston.
Other weather vanes made by Shem Drowne that can still be seen in the area today include the rooster weather vane (1721) once on Boston’s New Brick Church and now on the First Church in Cambridge, and the swallow-tailed banner weather vane (1740) atop Boston’s Old North Church.