Abstract: A Tornado is Coming! Commodifying and Counterfeiting Weather Forecasts in the Gilded Age

Jamie Pietruska


The U.S. Weather Bureau, newly constituted as a civilian agency in 1891, sought to establish itself as the sole producer of authoritative weather forecasts by discrediting the popular long-range "weather prophets" who offered, in almanacs and newspapers, predictions of the weather a month, a season, and a year ahead. In a related campaign, the Bureau also worked to protect its institutional identity by tracking the circulation of unauthorized, altered, and fabricated forecasts, aided significantly by an 1894 Act of Congress that made counterfeiting weather forecasts a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine or ninety days in prison. In its attempts to police counterfeiting, the Bureau confronted an array of rumors, pranks, scams, and especially advertisements that appropriated and falsified official government forecasts. This paper will examine the Bureau's responses to a range of counterfeiting incidents in the 1890s and the early years of the twentieth century, focusing in particular on advertisements that drew public attention and legal scrutiny. Alarmed citizens, Bureau officials, and federal and state prosecutors all struggled to determine the legal and epistemological boundaries of counterfeiting in the context of weather forecasting, and the Bureau often found itself unable to build a case when, as one frustrated Chicago official put it, "the spirit but not the letter of the law" had been violated. This study of the commodification and counterfeiting of weather forecasting illustrates the contested use and meaning of weather predictions as they circulated outside of the scientific institution and through the market.