History of Vintage Barometers and Their Valuable Styles

Published July 7, 2022
antique barometer

While weather instruments aren't common today, you've probably come across a vintage barometer hanging on a wall in your grandparents' house and never known what the dials and gauges meant. Just as older generations poke fun at some kids' inability to read analog clocks, so, too, have people made fun of kids for not knowing how to use a barometer to check the weather. Yet, you don't have to be able to predict the weather to enjoy these decorative climatological instruments from the past.

Major Barometers Throughout History

Invented in 1643 by Italian physicist Evangelista Torricelli, the first barometer design used water. Soon, Torricelli replaced water with mercury, since the poisonous substance is significantly heavier than water. Thus, mercury barometers were manufactured with open-bottom tubes resting on top of a small pool of mercury. With each atmospheric change, the mercury adjusted accordingly, sliding up and down the tube to show the current air pressure.

Until the mid-19th century, this was the main type of barometer that people used. Yet, French scientist Lucien Vidi's 1844 invention - the aneroid barometer - modernized barometer technology for the industrial age. The major change in aneroid barometers is that it doesn't require mercury at all, but rather uses a series of complicated displays to reflect pressure changes.

This advancement made barometers cheaper and easier to manufacture, and by the 20th century, they were a common household item. Most of the vintage barometers you can find are aneroid ones.

Collect Each of These Barometer Styles

Over time, barometers were designed to match whatever styles were in fashion. You can find pocket-sized barometers that people carried around with them in the mid-20th century or massive wall-hanging instruments that were part decoration, part functional tool. While smart phone weather apps might have eliminated the need for old barometers, they've transcended function into fashion, and many people like using them as decor. If you also like to collect based on appearances alone, it's a good idea to know about what types of barometers are available.

Wheel Barometers

wheel banjo barometer

Colloquially known as banjo barometers, one common design was the elongated pear-shaped (or banjo-shaped) instrument akin to the same-shaped famous banjo clocks. Housing a circular dial in the bottom of the barometer that interprets the mercurial measurements into readable output, wheel barometers are typically made using mercury to measure air pressure changes. Extending above this dial is the mercury tube itself, where you can see how high and low the mercury levels are in real-time. All of these pieces are typically encased in beautiful woods that create the signature banjo shape. Usually these pieces aren't highly decorative, but rather precise in their construction and so finely crafted that they can sell for a few thousand dollars in an open market.

Stick Barometers

stick barometer

Stick barometers are an antiquated way of displaying air pressure. Their shape vaguely resembles an old gas pump. These expensive collectibles are rather tall and skinny, and they have the mercury sticks encased inside a wooden frame, though it's open faced so you can read the instruments. Often, these barometers are more decorative than their wheel counterparts when made out of expensive woods like mahogany with lavish accents.

Porthole Barometers

porthole barometer

Porthole barometers are a compact style that strips away any extra pieces that're unnecessary to the readings. Simply, these barometers resemble the shape of a ship's porthole - petite and circular. Because their design was focused on function and not decoration, they were meant for hardworking purposes, like navigating the waters at sea.

Kit and Pocket Barometers

Midcentury Barometer Airguide wood square

By the mid-20th century, barometers were a commonplace item, but not as much of a status symbol as they once were. Seen more as a functional tool than a statement piece, you can find desktop examples that have survived in travel kits. Though these were cheaply made, they still did their job just fine.

Vintage Barometer Values

Anything historic and mechanical that still works tends to bring in a fair amount of buyer interest as well as a few hundred bucks. Given that there are so many tiny parts involved to make the mechanisms work, vintage barometers are worth a lot more money than your average vintage t-shirt. Likewise, the older the barometer, the more valuable it is. Barometers from the earliest stages of manufacturing can be worth a few thousand dollars, while those that're much newer aren't worth nearly that price.

Similarly, the quality of design and materials can have a big impact on barometer value. Highly decorative pieces with inlay and expensive metals like silver, gold, or marble will have higher values based on the cost of the materials alone. In addition, barometers that come with multiple instruments (such as clocks and/or thermometers) are worth more than ones without.

Take these antique and vintage barometers that were recently listed at auction, for example:

  • This black forest-style wheel barometer from the 1880s sold for $129 at auction. It could've sold for more had it not been missing its front glass plate. It also had some light damage that lowered its final sale price.
  • This beautiful mahogany wheel barometer manufactured in the 1930s is in good condition. It gets most of its value from the wood used to make it and its expertly executed design; thus, it was listed for $1,675.09 at auction.
  • This turn-of-the-century stick barometer was made out of mahogany by Davis & Sons. It features beautiful decorative inlay in a Sheraton style that was popular at the time. These desirable qualities contribute to its estimated value of $1,208.23.

Places to Buy and Sell Vintage Barometers

Antique and vintage barometers are a tricky thing to buy because they're difficult to ship (especially if they have mercury inside of them), and it's hard to know if they're operable without opening them up, which most in-person antiques shops don't want you to do without buying the merchandise first. Thus, while you can buy them in traditional antique stores, you'll find a wider selection of ones to choose from online, such as at any of these digital retailers and antiques marketplaces:

  • 1st Dibs - Given that vintage barometers can be quite expensive, 1st Dibs is a stellar marketplace to browse through since they offer a lot of high-quality, luxury antiques for sale from dealers around the world.
  • Love Antiques - Love Antiques is a U.K. antiques marketplace similar to 1st Dibs that sells a variety of collectible goods, including vintage barometers.
  • Antiques Atlas - Since 1999, Antiques Atlas has been buying and selling antiques to online shoppers. In fact, they've already sold 1,465 barometers and have nearly 2,000 currently listed. You can sell your collectibles through the marketplace if you pay for one of their membership packages.
  • Etsy - Perfect for first-time buyers or sellers, Etsy is an easily navigable marketplace hosting independent shops' wares from around the world. They're pretty easy to sell through (though they do have steep fees), and buying couldn't be simpler. However, products aren't vetted when they're listed, so you should be careful when buying anything from an Etsy seller.
  • eBay - Last on the list but first in most people's minds is eBay. Notorious for being everyone's go-to place to sell things online, you can sell your own stuff pretty easily through them. Yet, since vintage barometers can be quite large and difficult to ship, they don't make for a great fit for retailers like eBay, meaning that you don't find a ton of them for sale there.

Prohibition on Selling Old Mercury Barometers

An important thing to know when you're dealing in the antique and vintage barometer trade is that selling mercurial barometers is illegal in some states/countries. A few states have outlawed their sale because of the spill risk with their open-ended systems, and others have limitations on which can be sold. For example, Massachusetts exempts mercurial barometers that were manufactured before 1955 from their state ban. This ban extends in some way across international waters as well, with the European Union banning manufacture of modern mercury barometers while permitting sale of antique versions.

Don't Let the Pressure Get to You

In the immortal words of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, there's no reason to be under pressure when you've been passed down a huge scientific instrument that you have no idea what to do with. While you can absolutely go rustic and live by the gauge rather than by your phone's weather app, there are also a lot of people who'll be interested in taking it off of your hands if you'd rather sell.

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History of Vintage Barometers and Their Valuable Styles