Whimsical Whirligigs

Whirlin’ Twirlin’ Spinnin’ Devices That Are Now Considered Folk Art

Whirlygigs – Whirlijigs – Whirlybirds
A Historical Overview

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines whirligigs as:
Etymology:
Middle English whirlegigg: from whirlen to whirl + gigg top.

Antique Whirligig

What Are They?

A whirligig is a device, moved by the wind, which whirls and turns around on its pivot. It’s a working or playing figure mounted on a chassis, powered by wind-driven propellers, arms, etc. The entire “weathervane” turns with the wind’s direction. The propellers are useful as they help you gauge the relative velocity of the wind.

You may have heard them referred to as: whirlygigs; whirlijig; whirlyjig; whirlybird; or whirly. Many are simple in design, such as a person waving its arms, while others can be quite complicated, with several persons or animals activated at the same time perched upon several levels of operation.

Whatever its size or shape, a whirligig has two universal characteristics: it has been created for the fun of it, and it gives pleasure to those who see it.

Early Wind Indicators

Spinning Whimsical Wind Determining Instruments

Whirligigs, and their cousins – weathervanes – evolved from the very simple and practical wind vanes of ancient times. These wind indicators played an important function for farmers, sailors and anyone else affected by the weather. In researching them, I have not come across the exact date of their “invention”, however have found mention to the fact that in the 1440 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary “whyrlegyge” is defined as “any spinning toy”.

Who knows who really got the great idea of adding a propeller or pinwheel to a weathervane, however I’ll focus on what evolved here in North America with these garden art objects.

Antique Whirlygig

There is mention of them being used in early colonial times, solely for their function as a wind determining instrument.

Whimsicality Evolves

Move forward to the mid-to-late 1880’s and references are made to whirligigs appearing in the Appalachian Mountains region. These new folk art objects were made from scrap materials and possibly helped folks while away the idle time they had during the cold winter months. While traditional design themes depicted activities of rural life or common characters, these circa 1880 creations began to be whimsical in nature.

I’ve found reference made to “old-timers” calling them “comic weathervanes”. Comical because the faster the wind blew, the more furiously the poor figures had to move.

There is even mention of whirligigs having the extra “feature” of driving away moles, due to its vibrations. I would be interested in seeing exactly that design of whirligig and how it was mounted that would allow it to accomplish such a useful garden feat.  🙂

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, they regained popularity. Farmers were able to make some desperately needed extra money by making and selling them.

Unfortunately, because the materials used were normally not weatherproof, remaining antique specimens are few and far between. You can imagine how these are now coveted by serious folk art collectors. (I recently saw a circa 1930’s-40’s wooden whirligig up for auction. The figure’s hat spun around. The propellers that should have been in each hand were missing; it was only 12″ tall; and the asking price was $950.00.)

Two Types of Whirligigs

Either Type Has Parts That Catch The Wind And Spin

Non-mechanical whirligigs are the simplest, with wings, blades or flipper type appendages that catch the wind and spin.

Mechanical ones have the addition of a fan or propeller type mechanism that puts the whirligig into full motion/action. For instance, a very popular theme is a man chopping wood.

Click on this link for another interesting whirlygig article: The Whirligigs of American Folk Artist Vollis Simpson

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