This astonishingly thorough list of folk methods of predicting the weather—through everything from the flight of beetles to nightmares—reminds us of the importance weather-predicting had for early 19th-century Americans, most of whom were rural. In its unscientific nature, it’s an unusual piece to appear in the early Robert Merry’s Museum.
“Prognostications of the Weather” (from Robert Merry’s Museum, November 1844; pp. 154-159)

It is a matter of great convenience, to be able to tell, beforehand, what the weather is to be. Some persons rely upon the Almanac, but let me tell you that anybody can guess at the weather, as well as an Almanac-maker. There are certain signs, however, which foretell changes of weather, many of which have been noticed for thousands of years. Swift says, that

Careful observers may foretell the hour,

By sure prognostics, when to dread a shower, &c.

Thus persons who follow the sea, learn to predict, with great certainty, what the weather will be for some time to come. Farmers, and other people also, who live in the country, where the business depends much upon the weather, get to understand the signs which foretell a change with tolerable accuracy.

Dr. Darwin has collected many of these signs in the following verses.

The hollow winds begin to blow;

The clouds look black, the glass is low;

The soot falls down, the spaniels sleep;

And spiders from their cobwebs peep.

Last night the sun went pale to bed;

The moon in halos hid her head.

The boding shepherd heaves a sigh,

For, see, a rainbow spans the sky.

The walls are damp, the ditches smell,

Closed is the light-red pimpernel.

Hark! how the chairs and tables crack,

Old Betty’s joints are on the rack;

Her corns with shooting pains torment her,

And to her bed untimely send her.

Loud quack the ducks, the sea-fowls cry,

The distant hills are looking nigh.

How restless, are the snorting swine!

The busy flies disturb the kine.

Low o’er the graes the swallow wings,

The cricket, too, how sharp he sings!

Upon on the hearth, with velvet paws,

Sits wiping o’er her wishkered jaws.

The smoke from chimney’s right ascends,

Then spreading, back to earth it bends.

The wind unsteady veers around,

Or settling in the south is found.

Through the clear stream the fishes rise,

And nimbly catch the incautious flies.

The glow-worms, numerous, clear, and bright,

Illumed the dewy hill last night

At dusk the squalid toad was seen,

Like quadruped, stalk o’er the green.

The whirling wind the dust obeys,

Aud in the rapid eddy plays.

The frog has changed his yellow vest,

And in a russet coat is drest.

The sky is green, the air is still,

The mellow blackbird’s voice is shrill.

The dog, so altered is his taste,

Quits mutton bones, on grass to feast.

Behold the rooks, how odd their flight!

They imitate the gliding kite,

And seem precipitate to fall,

As if they felt the piercing ball.

The tender colts on back do lie,

Nor heed the traveller passing by.

In fiery red the sun doth rise,

Then wades through clouds to mount the skies.

’Twill surely rain, we see ’t with sorrow,

No working in the fields to-morrow.

In order to enable the reader to study the subject of signs of the weather, I will arrange those most relied upon, in alphabetical order, for convenient reference; remarking by the way, that “all signs of rain are said to fail in dry weather.” By this you must understand that the signs here set down are only probable, not infallible, signs.

Aches and Pains in the body, of various kinds, frequently forebode rain. Persons, for example, subject to rheumatism, feel more pain in the affected limb or palt of the body before a change of weather, particularly when fair is to be exchanged for wet. Old, carious teeth are also troublesome, and pains in the face, ears

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gums are sometimes experienced. Limbs once broken also ache at the place of their union, and various other aches and pains have been from time immemorial found to be signs of changes of weather.

Animals, by some peculiar sensibility electrical or other atmospheric influence, often indicate changes of weather.

Ants.—An universal bustle and activity observed in ant hills may be generally regarded as a sign of rain. The ants frequently appear all in motion together and carry their eggs about from place to place.

Asses.—When asses bray more than ordinary, particularly if they shake their ears if uneasy, it is said they predict rain, and particularly showers. We have noticed, that, in showery weather, a donkey, confined in a yard near the house, has brayed before every shower, and generally some minutes before the rain has fallen, as if some electrical influence, produced by the concentrating power of the approaching rain-cloud, caused a tickling in the windpipe of the animal, just before the shower came up. Whatever this electric state of the air preceding a shower may be, it seems to be the same that causes in other animals some peculiar sensations,—which makes the peacock squall the pintado call “come-back,” and which creates a variety of prognosticative motions in the different species of the animal kingdom.

An expressive English adage says,

When the ass begins to bray,

Be sure we shall have rain that day.

We have, says the writer of the preceding, repeatedly been able to give our hay-makers useful admonitions founded solely on the braying of the ass. Thus the proverb says truly,

’T is time to cock your hay and corn

When the old donkey blows his horn.

Barometer.—There is no instrument now more enerally used for ascertaining the coming weather than the barometer. It may however be remarked, that it is more from its rising or falling, than from its height or lowness, that we are to infer fair or foul weather. Generally speaking, the rising of the mercury presages clear fair weather, and its falling, foul weather, as rain, snow, high winds, and storms.

In very hot weather, the falling of the mercury indicates thunder.

In winter, the rising indicates frost, and in frosty weather, if the mercury fall three or four divisions, there wil follow a thaw; but in a continued frost, if the mercury rise, it will snow.

When foul weather happens soon after the falling of the mercury, expect but little of it; and, on the contrary, expect but little fair weather when it proves fair shortly after the mercury has risen.

In foul weather, when the mercury rises much and high, and so continues for two or three days before the foul weather is quite over, then expect a continuance of fair weather to follow.

In fair weather, when the mercury falls much and low, and thus continues for two or three days before the rain comes, then expect a great deal of wet, and probably high winds.

The unsettled motions of the mercury denotes uncertain and changeable weather.

p. 156

The words engraved on the register plate of the barometer, it may be observed, cannot be strictly relied upon to correspond exactly with the state of the weather; though it will in general agree with them as to the mercury rising and falling.

When the thermometer and barometer rise together in summer, with rain in large drops, a wholesome state of the atmosphere is at hand.

A great and sudden rising of the barometer, that is to say, a great accession of atmospherical pressure, will, in some persons, occasion a slight temporary difficulty of hearing and tingling in the ears, similar to that which is experienced in descending from high mountains, or from the air in balloons.

Bats.—When bats return soon to their hiding places, and send forth loud cries, bad weather may be expected.

Beetles flying about late in an evening often foretell a fine day on the morrow.

Blue Sky.—When there is a piece of blue sky seen in the forenoon of a rainy day, big enough, as the proverb says, “to make a Dutchman a pair of breeches,” we shall probably have a fine afternoon.

Calm.—A dead calm often precedes a violent gale; and sometimes the calmest sad clearest mornings, in certain seasons, are followed by a blowing showery day. Calms are forerunners of the hurricanes of the West Indies, and other tropical climes.

Candles, as well as lamps, often afford good prognostics of weather. When the flames of candles flare and snap, or burn with an unsteady or dim light, rain, and frequently wind also, are found to follow. The excrescences from the wicks called funguses also denote rain and wind.

Cats are said, when they wash their faces, or when they seem sleepy and dull, to foretell rain. The same is said of them when they appear irritable and restless, and play with their tails.

Cattle, when they gambol about in their pastures more than ordinary, foreshow rain, and in general a change of weather.

Chilliness, and a sensation of cold greater than the indication of temperature by the thermometer leads us to expect, often forebode rain, as they show that there is already an increased moisture in the air, which experience has shown to be referable to the decomposition and the first formation of cloud.

Clouds of any sort, when they increase much, portend rain, particularly at eventide; when they are very red they often foreshow wind; when they form a dapple-gray sky, with north wind, fair weather; when they rapidly form and evaporate, variable weather. Clouds, fretted and spotted, covering the sky after fine weather, or wavy, like the undulation of the sea, forbode rain.

Colors, of various kinds in the sky and clouds, tokens severally of different phenomena. Much red always forebodes wind and rain, particularly in the morning; in the evening it sometimes indicates a fine day, particularly if the morning be gray. A proverb says,

An evening red and a morning gray

Will set the traveller on his way;

But an evening gray and a morning red

Will pour down rain on the pilgrim’s head.

A greenish color of the sky near to the horizon, often shows that we may


expect more wet weather. The most beautiful and varied tints are seen in autumn, and in that season the purple of the falling leaf is often a sign of a continuation of fine weather.

When the clouds become more colored than ordinary, and particularly when red prevails, it sometimes indicates an east wind.

Cocks, when they crow at unwonted hours, often foretell a change of weather. We have often noticed this before rain. But this is by no means so certain a sign as many others; because, at particular seasons, and in particular kinds of weather, cocks habitually crow all day. During the calm, still, dry, dark, and warm weather sometimes occurring in the winter months, and which may be called the halcyon days of our climate, cocks keep a constant crowing all night and day. There appear to be three principal cock crowings in ordinary weather, namely, about midnight or soon after, about three in the morning, and at daybreak; the latter is never omitted.

We have noticed, however, that when cocks crow all day, in summer particularly, a change to rain has frequently followed.

Cream and Milk, when they turn sour in the night, often indicate thereby that thunder storms will probably shortly take place. The effect is referable to the electricity of the air at the time.

Currents of Air change their course frequently in the higher regions of the air first, and are afterwards continued to the earth’s surface; hence we can often foresee a change of the wind by observing the way in which the clouds above move. Both the strength of a coming gale, and the point of the compass from which it will blow, may usually be foreseen some time beforehand by noticing the velocity and direction of the clouds floating along in the upper current, or by means of balloons.

Dolphins or porpoises, when they come about a ship, and sport and gambol on the surface of the water, betoken a storm; hence they are regarded as unlucky omens for sailors. According to ancient fable, they formerly offered themselves in times of storm to convey shipwreeked mariners to the shore; but this is, of course, a story of mere human invention.

Dogs, before rain, grow sleepy and dull, and lie drowsily before the fire, and are not easily aroused. They also often eat grass, which indicates that their stomachs, like ours, are apt to be disturbed before a change of weather. It is also said to be a sign of change of weather when dogs howl and bark much in the night; they certainly do this much at the full moon, which has given rise to the saying relative to the dogs that bay at the moon. Dogs also dig in the earth with their feet before rain, and often make deep holes in the ground.

Dreams of a hurrying and frightful nature, also incubus, and other symptoms of oppressed and imperfect sleep, are frequent indications that the weather is changed,or about to change. Many persons experience these nocturnal symptoms on a change of wind, particularly when it becomes east. In all these cases the effect seems to be produced immediately on the nervous system, and through it on the stomach, so that the stomach shall again re-act on the sensorium.

p. 158

Drains, and sespools smell stronger than usual before rain.

Drowsiness and heavy sleep, both in man and animals, often forebode a heavy fall of rain or snow.

Ducks.—The loud and clamorous quackings of ducks, geese, and other waterfowl, are signs of rain. It is also a sign of rain when they wash themselves, and flutter about in the water more than usual.

Ears, when there is a tingling noise, or what is called a singing in them, afford thereby a sign of a change of weather, not simply of rain, as has been said, but of barometrical pressure in general. The sudden increase of pressure, like the descent from high mountains, or from balloons, causes in many persons a temporary deafness and roaring in the ears.

Feathers, pieces of flue, or dry leaves, playing about on the surface of ponds and other waters, as if agitated by light and varying eddies of wind, often forebode rain.

Fishes, when they bite more readily, and gambol near the surface of the streams or ponds, foreshow rain.

Flowers are many of them excellent indicators of the approaching weather by their opening and shutting, and other motions.

Fleeces, and Mares’ Tails, as they are called, seen in the sky, are signs of rain and wind. By fleeces are meant those clouds which look like fleeces of wool.

Flies, and various sorts of volatile insects, become more troublesome, and sting and bite more than usual before, as well as in the intervals of rainy weather, particularly in autumn, when they are very numerous, and often become a great nuisance. This observation applies to several sorts of flies. The horse-flies likewise of all sorts are more troublesome before the fall of rain, and particularly when the weather is warm.

Forests.—The hollow sound of forests, while the wind is roaring among the woods, is a sign of rain and of storms.

Geese washing, or taking wing with a clamorous noise, and flying to the water, portend rain. Geese, by the way, are excellent guards to a house against fire or thieves.

Gnats afford several indications.—When they fly in a vortex in the beams of the setting sun, they forebode fair weather: when they frisk about more widely in the open air at eventide, they foreshow heat; and when they assemble under trees, and bite more than usual, they indicate rain.

Halo.—When this phenomenon is observed round the sun or moon, it shows that hail, snow, or rain, according to the season, will soon follow. Colored or double halos are still more certain indications of rain, and often of wind also. When mock suns or mock moons, bands of light, and other unusual phenomena attend halos, a peculiar condition of the atmosphere is indicated. The proper halo or luminous ring, is distinguished from the corona or luminous disk, which is sometimes a forerunner of rain also, but is a thing of more frequent occurrence. When halos are very red, wind almost always follows.

Headaches often foretell a change of weather in persons subject to such complaints. There is also some obscuse change of weather near to the periods of new and full moon, which causes a

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certain ephemeral headache that begins usually in the morning, gets worse about two o’clock, and subsides in the evening, attended with an irritated stomach; it much resembles the ordinary bilious headache from repletion, but differs from that which follows immediately on a certain sort of indigestion. Indeed, most periodical disorders seem to be connected with some atmospheric changes. And it is very remarkable, that they should so often have their worst paroxysms and the crisis of their terms, about the time of the conjunction and the opposition of the moon.

Hogs, when they shake the stalks of corn and spoil them, often indicate rain: also when they rub in the dust, the same or some similar phenomenon may be expected. When they run squeaking about, and throw up their heads with a peculiar jerk, windy weather is about to commence: hence the Wiltshire proverb, that “Pigs can see the wind.”

Horses, as well as some other domestic animals, foretell the coming of rain by starting more than ordinary, and appearing in other respects restless and uneasy on the road.

Incubus or nightmare, though it commonly comes of a loaded stomach, will nevertheless often occur on the occasion of a change of weather in the night, which seems to produce the effect by disturbing the digestive organs. The same observation holds good with regard to those frightful and impressive dreams which some persons have in particular kinds of weather, and about the period of change.

Lamps, from the manner in which they burn, forebode change of weather. Before rain they burn less bright, the flame snaps and crackles, and a sort of fungous excrescence grows from the wicks, which Virgil was mindful to put among his prognostics of rain and wind.

Mare’s Tails, or cormoid curlclouds in the sky, forebode wind, and sometimes rain.

Moon.—The prognostics from the looks of the moon are various, and were known of old. When she looks fiery, or red, like the color of copper, wind is generally to be suspected; when pale, or confused with ill-defined edges, rain; when very clear and bright, fine weather.

When the moon is near the full, or new, people are more irritable than at other times, and headaches and diseases of various kinds are worse. Insanity at these times has its worst paroxysms, and hence the origin of the term lunacy. Timber cut in the last quarter of the moon is said to be much the most durable. About the time of full moon the weather is generally fair. The changes of the moon are supposed to bring changes of weather.

Thus we have given a chapter upon signs, and, although they are not all to be relied upon, they may be worthy of notice.

Copyright 1999-2024, Pat Pflieger
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