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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Friday, January 06, 2023

Boston’s Other Gilded Grasshopper

In 1743, William Price published a view of Boston from the harbor, showing the town’s many wharves and steeples.

We can see a digital copy of the Boston Public Library’s copy of Price’s print through Digital Commonwealth.

Harvard offers a crisper and more zoomable image scanned from a facsimile of the print published in the mid-1800s. That’s the source of the detail shown here.

This edifice with a weathervane wasn’t a church or civic building. It was the airy summerhouse in the back yard of merchant Peter Faneuil on Pemberton Hill, across the street from the burying ground beside King’s Chapel.

Eliza S. M. Quincy recalled the form of the weathervane in her memoir:
The crest of the former owner,—a grasshopper,—similar to the vane of Faneuil Hall, yet glittered on a summer-house in the garden, which commanded a view only inferior to that from Beacon Hill.
A few years before Quincy’s memoir was published posthumously, Lucius M. Sargent made a preemptive correction:
A grasshopper was not the crest of Peter Faneuil’s arms. I formerly supposed it was; for a gilded grasshopper, as half the world knows, is the vane upon the cupola of Faneuil Hall; and a gilded grasshopper, as many of us well remember, whirled about, of yore, upon the little spire, that rose above the summer house, appurtenant to the mansion, where Peter Faneuil lived, and died. . . .

The selection of a grasshopper, for a vane, was made, in imitation of…the very same thing, upon the pinnacle of the Royal Exchange, in London.
Nobody seems sure about whether the grasshopper weathervane on the Faneuils’ summerhouse came before or after the one on top of Faneuil Hall. But it’s clear there were two. 

The Faneuil Hall grasshopper, made by metalworker Shem Drowne, is still up there, having survived storms, remodeling, thefts, and other indignities.

As for the Faneuil mansion and summerhouse, they were torn down in the 1830s as the area was redeveloped into Pemberton Square. (George Loring Brown painted the house at that time, but that image doesn’t include the summerhouse.) That neighborhood is now largely covered by the Center Plaza building across from Government Center.

The summerhouse weathervane disappeared with the buildings. But has it just hopped back into sight?

TOMORROW: Grasshopper for sale.

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