Monday, November 23, 2009

Hidden Jewell

It was a gilded age, to be sure. Lavish mansions in cities large and small, palatial homes by the sea, even large and prosperous farm complexes dotting the rural landscape. The late nineteenth century was definitely a time when homes, furnishings, and decorative accessories became elaborate and highly ornate. This was particularly true of one area of folk art that could be seen virtually anywhere in America: weathervanes.

Weathervanes of the Gilded Age were largely produced by large companies like L. W. Cushing & Sons of Waltham, Massachusetts and J. W. Fiske of New York. These manufacturers employed craftsmen to create copper vanes in a wide variety of types and styles in multiple sizes (often covered in gold leaf; that’s the “gilded” part) to be sold in catalogues that were distributed everywhere. They were mass-produced, but still hand crafted, thus maintaining a connection with the idea and spirit of folk art. As you might imagine, these vanes are highly prized, and have been for decades. You can forget about buying an authentic one with a solid provenance, unless you have too much money to sit around reading folk art blogs. Some bold thieves have even tried to steal these vanes from cupolas and steeples from helicopters, but this is not recommended. It is an act of air piracy and a Federal crime.

We have, in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, two prime examples of this form of American sculpture. The first is a grasshopper weathervane attributed to L. W. Cushing & Sons and made about 1885. I highlighted this piece in my October 1 post.

The other example, our Goddess of Liberty weathervane, has an even more interesting history. It was thought to be by Cushing too, but it has a patent date of September 1865 on its base. Cushing did not go into the weathervane business until 1867, when he bought an established business at auction. That business belonged to the pioneer of the commercial weathervane business, Alvin Jewell. Jewell started manufacturing weathervanes in 1852, along with other cast-iron and brass products for the home. He was the first to market his weathervanes in catalogues, and his repertoire included the Goddess of Liberty. Tragically, Jewell died in a fall from a scaffold in 1867 (this must have been an occupational hazard). When Cushing bought the business, he also purchased all of Jewell’s molds, thus enabling himself to reproduce all of the favorite vanes. That’s why it is so hard to tell a Cushing from a Jewell. See, for example, the Cushing version of the Goddess of Liberty in his 1883 catalogue at upper left.

In this case, however, we have the patent date as proof. Since Jewell was the only one making these goddesses in 1865, we now realize that we may have the only documented Goddess of Liberty by this important innovator. A Jewell indeed.
The images of the 1883 L. W. Cushing & Sons catalogues are courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.


  1. Paul,
    I imagine this was beautiful to view from a distance too, but you would miss out on all the detail. Seems a shame. Of course, I can't really tell how tall it is. I think I must be imagining it smaller than it actually is.

  2. Hi Christine,

    I should have mentioned the height, of course. The piece is about 18" tall, so it was probably not meant for a very tall building. The same design came in a variety of sizes, though, like all of the popular Jewell and Cushing vanes. There is a wood sculpture of this figure at the Shelburne Museum, carved for Jewell by Henry Leach, which must be about 40" tall. Quite a piece. Thanks for your comment.


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