Weathercocks or vanes are of great antiquity. Although its natural place is at the summit of a tower or a church steeple, it is less clear why the traditional form of this old sign should be a cock. One authority has explained it as having a religious origin because 'the cock, like the preacher, watches throughout the night, marks the hours with his call, wakes the sleeper and celebrates the dawn'. Although copper is the traditional material for this purpose, the oldest known weathercock is of bronze. It stands above the summit of Brescia Cathedral, where it was fixed nearly eleven and a half centuries ago.

The coppersmiths who made old weather-vanes displayed both ingenuity and humour, hence the vast number of curious designs. Grasshoppers, the sign of Sir Thomas Gresham, founder of London's Royal Exchange, are common; so are ships. Above the relics of St. Michael's, a Wren church at Queenhithe, there is a three-masted barque vane which has successfully resisted the sooty atmosphere of the metropolis for nearly three hundred years. Flying foxes are also a favourite subject for weathervanes. One neat symbol is a maltster's shovel vane which ornaments a brewery. Sonning Church has for its vane the figure of a parson preaching to empty chairs. Griffins, dragons, fishes, a blacksmith shoeing a horse, and to mention one with a modern note, a railway locomotive at Crewe, are other subjects of original design. On Standish Steeple, near Wigan, the crest of the Standish Family was utilized for the vane; it shows an owl seizing a rat.