Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Bug's Life

It might be the most famous piece of folk art in America. Every day, thousands of people come within viewing distance of it but only a few notice. That’s because they fail to look up.

I’m talking about the famous grasshopper weathervane that sits atop Faneuil Hall in downtown Boston. It was made by coppersmith and tinsmith Shem Drowne and placed on its cupola in 1742. George Washington was only seven years old, and of course Boston, Massachusetts, and the rest of the colonies were thoroughly English. So technically this is a piece of Colonial English folk art. Drowne based his grasshopper on the weathervane that sat atop the Royal Exchange in London, and wanted the association with finance for Boston’s new marketplace and meeting hall. The vane is four feet long, weighs 80 pounds, is made of copper covered with gold leaf, and has glass eyes. And oh, what a history it has.

After the grasshopper was completed, it was reportedly shipped by accident to the College of William and Mary, where it sat atop the Wren Building until someone figured out that it wasn’t the Butterfly weathervane they had ordered. After finally making it to its correct location, the weathervane presided peacefully over Boston’s market district for about 13 years. In 1755 it was thrown from its perch by the Great Lisbon Earthquake, centered in the Atlantic and triggering a tsunami that nearly destroyed the Portuguese capital. Fortunately, Shem Drowne was still around, and he and his son Thomas took the damaged weathervane back to their shop in the North End and repaired it.

Its next quiet interlude lasted only 6 years. In 1761 Faneuil Hall caught on fire and the poor grasshopper was damaged again. This time, Drowne’s son Thomas did the repair work. Thomas was obviously enamored of the great vane and wanted to preserve its history. In 1768 he inserted a note into the belly of the grasshopper. The note was entitled “Food for the Grasshopper” and read:

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.

In 1805 the weathervane was moved as Charles Bullfinch completely redesigned Faneuil Hall, with the cupola repositioned from the middle of the building to the East end. During the War of 1812, the grasshopper helped ferret out British spies. God help you if you didn’t know the identity of the unique item atop Faneuil Hall in Boston.

The final affront to the vane’s dignity occurred in 1974, when it was stolen. Miraculously, the thieves did not leave the grounds with the piece; they hid it under some old flags in the eaves of the cupola and it was discovered a few days later.

It’s a great American story for one of the greatest pieces of American sculpture. As a tribute to this famous piece of our heritage, weathervane manufacturer L.W. Cushing made his own version of the grasshopper for sale in the 1880s. We have one of these pieces in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. Every time I see it, I think of the fragile but resilient creature in Boston, the glided child of a tinsmith and silent witness to the centuries.


  1. You have one of the best jobs ever.

  2. I had no idea a weathervane could face such peril and come out looking beautiful. What a yarn.

  3. Haha, don't I know it, Joey. Thanks, both of you, for the comments. It is quite a story and I was surprised so many people in Boston had not heard it before.


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