J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Grasshopper on Faneuil Hall

Click on the thumbnail at the right to see a nice photograph of the grasshopper-shaped weathervane atop Faneuil Hall, taken by Steve Borichevsky.

That grasshopper was the work of Boston metalworker Shem Drowne (1683-1774), who also created a rooster weathervane for the New Brick Meeting in the North End, a wavy banner for Christ (Old North) Church, and an Indian figure for the Province House. (Drowne himself was a member of the First Baptist Meeting.)

An Indian appeared on the Massachusetts provincial seal, and therefore an appropriate figure to top the governor’s mansion. A rooster was an old Christian symbol. But what did a grasshopper mean in Boston?

Apparently what mattered was what a grasshopper meant in London. A weathervane in that shape topped the Royal Exchange built by Sir Thomas Gresham in 1571. The insect thus became a symbol of worldwide British commerce.

According to Lucius Manlius Sargent, the mercantile Faneuil family brought that symbol to Boston:
…a gilded grasshopper, as many of us well remember, whirled about, of yore, upon the little spire, that rose above the summerhouse, appurtenant to the mansion, where Peter Faneuil lived, and died. That house was built, and occupied, by his uncle, Andrew; and he had some seven acres, for his garden thereabouts. It was upon the westerly side of old Treamount Street. . . . The selection of a grasshopper, for a vane, was made, in imitation of their example, who placed the very same thing, upon the pinnacle of the Royal Exchange, in London.
Thus, Boston probably commissioned Drowne to make a big grasshopper weathervane for Faneuil Hall to honor Peter Faneuil for funding its construction and to signal arrivals from London that Boston was a commercial center, too.


An Urban Cottage said...

Interesting. I worked for a company many years ago that borrowed the name Faneuil for its company name and was further lame enough to use the grasshopper weathervane as a logo. We always wondered what the grasshopper symbolized.

Nat Sheidley said...

Nice work, John! To add to your list of Shem Drowne's work in Boston, he also did the weathervane on top of the Old State House. This was badly damaged in the fire of 1747, which destroyed the top two floors of the building as well as its tower, but the vane was rescued, restored by Drowne, and placed atop the new tower, where it still stands today.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the pointer, Nat. Here's a good photo of the Old State House weathervane being reinstalled after recent restoration. It's interesting to compare its shape to the vane on Old North Church.

Charles Bahne said...

I would question whether "Boston probably commissioned Drowne to make the grasshopper" or whether it was Peter Faneuil himself who made the choice of the weathervane. After all, it was Faneuil who paid for the building and supervised its construction; he simply turned the keys over to the town when it was completed. And it was Faneuil who, like his late uncle, was a member of the Royal Exchange.

Many of the town's residents were opposed to the construction of the hall, as J.L. noted in Tuesday's post (May 22).

J. L. Bell said...

Crediting Faneuil does fit with the sequence of events. According to a note put into the grasshopper by Shem Drowne's son, it was made in May 1742. The building was turned over to the selectmen in August, whereupon they named it after Faneuil.

Steve M said...

Why a grasshopper on the Royal Exchange?


AJ said...

I love the post. It is a lovely piece of work and a nice juxtaposition to the Cow on Quincy market. This is a neat bit of trivia that I can work into my tours for out of town guests. Will try to ping the Boston by Foot crowd.