Shem Drowne was born in Kittery, Maine--although least one source gives his birthplace simply as "near Dover," [New Hampshire]--in 1683, the son of Leonard and Elizabeth Drowne. The family moved to Boston when he was a young boy. In 1712, he married Katherine Clark, with whom he had ten children, and established his metalworking shop on Anne (now Ann) Street in Boston. Drowne was a highly respected member of Boston society, which perhaps contributed to his success as an artisan. He became deacon of the First Baptist Church in 1721 and owned property in both Boston and New Hampshire. His third son, Thomas, followed him in the tinwork trade, and was also a maker of weathervanes, including a rooster made for the East Meetinghouse in Salem, Mass., that is in the collections of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. Drowne died on 13 January 1774 at the age of ninety-one and was buried at Copp's Hill Cemetery in Boston.
Although primarily known as a tin worker, Shem Drowne's lasting legacy is in four copper weathervanes he crafted, three of which still adorn the skyline of greater Boston: the rooster (1721) atop the First Church of Cambridge, the swallow-tail banner (1740) on top of the Old North Church, and his last and most famous weathervane, the grasshopper (1742) on the cupola of Faneuil Hall. His earliest weathervane, the Indian archer, today graces the front hallway of the Massachusetts Historical Society's building, and was likely inspired by the Native American featured on the Massachusetts Bay seal of 1629. This weathervane was immortalized by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who featured it in his stories "Drowne's Wooden Image" and "Legends of the Province House." Hawthorne described the "Indian chief, gilded all over" who "stood during the better part of the century on the Cupola of the Province House, bedazzling the eyes of those who looked upward, like an angel of the sun." In the twentieth century, Esther Forbes began her popular children's book Johnny Tremain with Boston awakening to the "glass eyed Indian."
The making of a weathervane begins with a wood pattern, either a positive model or a concave negative. Sheet copper is then hammered against the wood, left and right sides joined together, and metal and glass details added. Drowne's archer weathervane is an oddity because his arrow points with the wind rather than facing into the wind, as do most weathervane pointers (including the three other surviving Drowne vanes).
The Province House was built in 1679 by wealthy merchant Peter Sargeant. This opulent home was built of bricks imported from Holland and stood 100 feet back from old Marlborough Street (now Washington Street), surrounded by trees, a sprawling lawn, and a paved carriage path. After Sargeant's death, his third wife remarried and the estate was sold in 1716 for use as the residence of the appointed governors of Massachusetts sent from England under the provincial government. The Royal Coat of Arms, "richly carved and gilt," was placed over the front door clearly establishing Royal authority to all who entered. This coat of arms, a beautifully carved oak tablet, also in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, is on display at the Old State House in Boston. The first governor to reside in the Province House was Samuel Shute, followed by William Shirley, Thomas Pownall, Francis Bernard, Thomas Gage, and finally William Howe. After the Revolution, the Province House was referred to as the "Government House" or the "Old Treasury Building" and was occupied by the Governor and Council.
After the construction of the new Massachusetts State House in 1798, the Province House was endowed by the Commonwealth to the Massachusetts General Hospital. The trustees of the hospital leased the estate to David Greenough, a developer, for ninety-nine years, after which it would revert back to the hospital. Brick houses and stores were soon built in front of the Province House, obscuring it from view. The Province House served at various times as a tavern and minstrel hall before its destruction by fire in 1864, leaving only the weathervane and royal coat of arms as reminders of its past glory. The last traces of brickwork from the house were uncovered in 1922 and the exterior steps are still visible on Province Street in Boston.
The weathervane was given to the MHS in 1876 by Emily Warren Appleton, the daughter of Dr. John Collins Warren, a founder of Massachusetts General Hospital, who had received it from developer David Greenough's son Henry. Warren used the weathervane on his own house in Brookline. Drowne's weathervane was displayed at the 1968 World's Fair in Brussels, and in the MHS's bicentennial exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1991 (where it was displayed for the first time alongside the Faneuil Hall grasshopper).
The MHS welcomes everyone to view the weathervane and numerous other treasures on display at the Society during our guided art tours. Led by Curator of Art Anne Bentley, the tours are held every Saturday at 10 AM and are free and open to the public. The ninety minute tour features manuscripts, artifacts, and artwork. No reservation is required for individuals or small groups, but parties of eight or more should contact the Society in advance. For further information please contact Anne Bentley at email@example.com or 617-646-0508, or visit the Calendar of Events section of our website.