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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The History of Whirligigs--Love In Motion


Sarah J. McNeal, author of time travel, paranormal, western and contemporary romances.
http://www.sarahmcneal.com

I've been working on my Christmas story for Prairie Rose Publications and it involves a whirligig. I love whirligigs and spent a very long time on Pinterest just collecting pictures and admiring them. Out of curiosity, I wondered where the first whirligig came from and researched it.

I have love whirligigs all my life. I remember going up to north central Pennsylvania on visits to my grandparents. Because of the large numbers of Amish there, handmade wooden items are easy to find, whirligigs among them. Passing by shops with all kinds of animated whirligigs brought to life by the wind, made me laugh.

I suppose I ought to start by explaining just what a whirligig is. A whirligig is an object that spins or whirls, or has at least one part that spins or whirls. There are several kinds of whirligigs that include pinwheels, buzzers, comic weathervanes, gee-haws, spinners, whirligigs, whirlijig,  whirlybird, or plain whirly. Whirligigs are mostly powered by the wind but can be hand, friction, or motor powered. They can be used as a kinetic garden ornament. Some are designed to transmit sound and vibration into the ground to repel burrowing rodents in yards, gardens, and backyards. There are four types of whirligigs: Button, friction, string, and wind driven.


Button whirligigs:
Button whirligigs, also called button spinners and buzzers are the earliest whirligigs. They are very simple. Native Americans designed them with a piece of clay or bone and a strip of hide since 500 BC.  Many children during the Great Depression from the Appalachians and Ozarks made them with a button or coin and a piece of string. They were entertaining toys and I even made them myself.
Buzzers are button whirligigs that make a sound which can be adjusted depending on how quickly the button is spinning and by the tightness of the string. Button whirligigs are still seen in craft shops and souvenir stores in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Friction and string whirligigs
String powered whirligigs require the operator to wrap the string around a shaft and then pull the string to cause the whirligig’s motion. String Whirligigs have ancient origins. The bamboo-copter or bamboo butterfly, was invented in China in 400 BC. While the initial invention did not use string to launch a propeller type piece, later Chinese versions did. The first known depictions of whirligigs are string powered versions in tapestries from medieval times.
Friction whirligigs, also called Gee-Haws, depend on the holder rubbing a stick against a notched shaft resulting in a propeller at the end of the shaft to turn, as the result of the vibration carried along the shaft. The motion needed to power a friction whirligig is very similar to rubbing sticks together to create fire. Friction whirligigs are still found in craft shops and souvenir stores in the Appalachian Mountains.


Wind-driven whirligigs
A wind-driven whirligig transfers the energy of the wind into either a simple release of kinetic energy through rotation or a more complicated transfer of rotation energy to power a mechanism that produces repetitive motions and/or creates sounds. The wind simply pushes on the whirligig turning one part of it.
The simplest and most common example of a wind-driven whirligig is the pinwheel. The pinwheel demonstrates the most important aspect of a whirligig, blade surface. Pinwheels have a large cupped surface area which allows the pinwheel to reach its maximum speed quickly at low wind speed. I know all of you have seen pinwheels. I used to make them myself out of paper, a straight pin and a straw.
Increasing the blade area of the whirligig increases the surface area so more air particles collide with the whirligig. This causes the drag force to reach its maximum value and the whirligig to reach its terminal speed in less time. The opposite occurs when thin or short blades with a smaller surface area are used, resulting in the need for a higher wind speed to start and operate the whirligig. Whirligigs come in a range of sizes and configurations, bounded only by human ingenuity. The two blade non-mechanical model is the most prevalent; exemplified by the classic bird with wings.


I once saw gigantic whirligigs in a magazine. One of them was a dad holding a kid as if he was teaching her how to swim. The arms of the child were the movable part; they spun around when the wind blew. This thing looked as if it was as big as a billboard. I can just imagine it on the grassy prairie with the grass looking like waves. I thought it was amazing.

Some interesting history
The actual origin of whirligigs is unknown. Farmers and sailors use weathervanes and the assumption is one or both groups are likely the originators. By 400 BC the bamboo-copter or dragon butterfly, a helicopter type rotor is launched by rolling a stick had been invented in China. I have one I bought at a store in Chimney Rock. It’s just a stick with a helicopter-shaped blade on top. I can used my hands, with the stick in between and twirl it until it spins fast enough to lift off.
Wind driven whirligigs were technically possible by 700 AD when the Sasanian Empire began using windmills to pump water for irrigation. The weathervane which dates to the Sumerians in 1600-1800 BC, is the second component of wind driven whirligigs.

In Chinese, Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman civilizations there are ample examples of weathervanes but as yet, no examples of a propeller driven whirligig. A grinding corn doll of Egyptian origin demonstrates that string operated whirligigs were already in use by 100 BC
The first known visual representation of a European whirligig is contained in a medieval tapestry that depicts children playing with a whirligig consisting of a hobbyhorse on one end of a stick and a four blade propeller at the other end.

For reasons that are not clear, whirligigs in the shape of the cross became a fashionable allegory in paintings of the fifteenth and sixteenth century. An oil by Hieronymus Bosch probably completed between 1480 and 1500 and known as the Christ Child with a Walking Frame, contains a clear illustration of a string powered whirligig.

A book published in Stuttart in 1500 shows the Christ child in the margin with a string powered whirligig.

The Jan Provost late sixteenth-century painting ‘’Virgin and Child in a Landscape’’ clearly shows the Christ child holding a whirligig as well.

The American version of the wind driven whirligig probably originated with the immigrant population of the United Kingdom as whirligigs are mentioned in early American colonial times. How the wind driven whirligig evolved in America is not fully known, though there are some markers.

George Washington brought ‘’whirligigs’’ home from the Revolutionary War.
By the mid-18th century weathervanes had evolved to include free moving “wings”. These “wings” could be human arms; pitchforks; spoons, or virtually any type of implement. The 1819 publication by Washington Irving of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (one of my favorite stories) contains the following description: “a little wooden warrior who, armed with a sword in each hand, was most valiantly fighting the wind on the pinnacle of the barn’’.

By the last half of the 19th century constructing wind driven whirligigs had become a pastime and art form. What began as a simple turning of artificial feathers in the wind advanced into full blown mechanisms producing both motion and sound. Unfortunately, both the exposure to the weather and the fragile nature of whirligigs means very few wind driven whirligigs from this era survive. (A fate my own whirligigs have met.)The period between 1880 and 1900 brought rapid geographic expansion of whirligigs across the United States. After 1900, production seemed for the most part to center on the southern Appalachians. Craftsman from the southern Appalachians continued to produce whirligigs into the 20th century. During the Great Depression a resurgence in production by craftsman and amateurs was attributed to the need for ready cash.

Today Whirligigs are used as toys for children, as garden structures designed to keep birds or other garden pests away, as decorative yard art and as art.


Whirligigs as art
Whirligigs have become art. A number of museums now have collections, or examples in their collections.

Whirligigs in literature
William Shakespeare uses the whirligig as a metaphor for "what goes around, comes around" in his play, Twelfth Night.
O. Henry wrote a short story called "The Whirligig of Life", about a mountain couple who decide to divorce and the events that lead to their remarriage told from the perspective of the judge.
Lloyd Biggle, Jr. wrote a novel titled The Whirligig of Time as part of his science fiction series featuring Jan Darzek, a former private detective.
In Whirligig, a novel by Paul Fleischman, a boy makes a mistake that takes the life of a young girl and is sent on a cross country journey building whirligigs.
In the Newbery Award-Winning young adult novel Missing May by Cynthia Rylant, Ob, the main character's uncle, makes whirligigs as a hobby. After his wife who loved the whirligigs dies, the whirligigs continue to move and symbolize the fact that life must go on for Ob. I love this symbolism.)

Whirligigs in the movies
In the movie Twister, Helen Hunt’s aunt Meg (played by Lois Smith) has a large collection of metal kinetic art whirligigs in her front yard to warn her of approaching tornadoes. (I loved her big metal whirligigs. They also made music like wind chimes.  They were beautiful.)

Whirligigs as folk art
When whirligigs became recognized as American folk art isn’t clear, but today they are a well-established sub-category. With recognition, folk art whirligigs have increased in value.



A traditional whirligig commonly found in Bali, Indonesia is a musical whirligig of a farmer pulling a bull. They are still available, and are often used in the rice paddies as the sound they make when the wind blows scares the birds away. An example of this type whirligig was found near Clarkrange, Tennessee on the Highway 127 Corridor Sale. It represents an interesting example of a combination of a mechanical and sound producing whirligig.

                                This picture shows the mechanism for producing music

The propeller, the Balinese farmer and the bull are of tin. The farmer and bull are painted but the propeller blades are not. The body is of hand whittled bamboo, fastened with rusty nails and wire and a single piece of string. There are still pencil marks where various pieces were centered and/or aligned.
The farmer is connected to the shaft of the whirligig by a bamboo stick with an offset where the stick connects to the shaft. The result is: as the shaft turns the farmer’s arm lifts from the offset shaft which makes the farmer pull the string which lifts the bull’s head. The shaft contains a second feature, a set of knockers that create a bit of music on raised pieces of bamboo. There are a total of six knockers which strike six bamboo plates. The bamboo plates are raised by placing a circular piece of bamboo or something similar between the knockers and the bamboo base. Each rotation causes three knockers to hit plates so the sound is actually different at each rotation. The knockers are nailed in pattern to the shaft.
Whirligigs from folk artist Reuben Aaron Miller and others are considered highly collectable. However, whirligigs' value as folk art has been uneven. At a 1998 auction at Skinner Galleries a 19th Century Uncle Sam with saw and flag in excellent condition sold for $12,650. At a 2000 auction at Skinner Galleries a 19th-century polychrome carved pine and copper band figure whirligig in excellent condition sold for $10,925 and an early 20th-century bike rider of painted wood and sheet metal sold for $3,450. In 2005, a 20th Century folk art whirligig in good condition brought $2,900 at an auction at Horst Auction Center in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (30 miles from my hometown.)




I bought most of my whirligigs for $10-$20 dollars. Those same whirligigs now cost around $58. Just sayin’.


                                Whirligig Kinetic Art Public Library, O'Fallon, Illinois

The modern craftsman
There is still a role for the solitary craftsman, whittler or inventor as evidenced by the following cast of modern whirligig builders.

Lester Gay of Fountain, North Carolina made whirligigs from his retirement until his death in 1998. Mr. Gay’s wind driven whirligigs were made of bicycle rims placed at nearly uniform height to create a "garden of whirligigs". He never sold one personally. At the end of his life there were said to be over 250 whirligigs in his yard. The whole collection was donated to the Fountain, North Carolina Volunteer Fire Department, which sold them off at $75 each.

Near Plantersville, Alabama between 2001 and 2008 Edith Lawrence made whirligigs that her husband Gene sold from their front yard. Gene became known locally as Whirligig Man. Edith's whirligigs were of the wind driven type, typically of cast off plastic. All of the proceeds they earned went to their local church. Edith died in December 2008 and Gene abandoned the business soon after.

Mr. Elmer Preston (b.3/17/1874-d.10/1/1974)lived in South Hadley, Massachusetts worked in a traditional folk manner, with the classic themes of Farmer Cutting Wood, etc.
Ander Lunde of Chapel Hill, North Carolina is credited with reviving the whirligig during the 1980s. A well-known painter and wood sculptor, Lunde won First Prize for a whirligig sculpture in the 1981 Durham (North Carolina) Art Guild Juried Exhibition. Lunde received two honorable mentions for his whirligigs at the first statewide Juried Exhibition of North Carolina Crafts in 1983. Lunde's contribution to the literature on whirligigs is substantial, with a total of eight how-to build whirligig books to his credit. (See bibliography.)

The most famous of modern wind driven whirligig makers is probably Vollis Simpson (1919 - May 31, 2013) of Lucama, North Carolina. Mr. Simpson has constructed a "whirligig farm" on his land in Lucama, North Carolina, which has been profiled by PBS, the subject of an online photographic essay at the Minnesota Museum of Science, and an article in American Profile. One of Simpson's creations stands in front of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Simpson was named the 2012 Arts and Culture winner of Southern Living's Heroes of the New South Awards. Simpson's farm contains some thirty to forty whirligigs at any given time, some of which reach fifty feet in height. The whirligigs are made from castoff metal machine parts and an assortment of odd and colorful pieces of various origins., He sells smaller versions to the public, but only from his farm.

Pine Shop Woodcrafters was established in 1989 in Bellows Falls, Vermont by John Whitney, and continues to reproduce this early American craft. John's whirligigs are from clear cut pine logs. All parts are handmade (even the crankshaft), and are individually traced, band-saw cut, and hand sanded to give them the best 4 season balance & durability.
Wilson, North Carolina holds an annual Whirligig Festival in November of each year which includes a whirligig building contest complete with nominal cash prizes. The contest is judged in part by Vollis Simpson.

References:
Wikipedia, Pinterest (I did not, however, use any of those pictures due to the unknown copy rights), and my own whirligig collection.
Bibliography of books that might interest you:
  • Bishop, Robert and Coblentz, Patricia; A Gallery of American Weathervanes and Whirligigs (ISBN 0525476520 / 0-525-47652-0); E.P. Dutton, NY, 1981.
  • Bridgewater, Alan; and Bridgewater, Gill; The Wonderful World of Whirligigs and Wind Machines (ISBN 0830683496 / 0-8306-8349-6); Tab Books, 1990
  • Burda, Cindy; Wind Toys That Spin, Sing, Twirl & Whirl; (ISBN 0806939346 / 0-8069-3934-6); Sterling, New York, 1999
  • Fitzgerald, Ken; Weathervanes and Whirligigs; Bramhall House, 1967
  • Lunde, Anders S.; Whirligigs: Design and Construction; Mother Earth News, 1983
  • Lunde, Anders S.; More Whirligigs; Chilton Book Co., Radnor, PA; 1984
  • Lunde, Anders S.; Whirligigs In Silhouette: 25 New Patterns (ISBN 0866750142 / 0-86675-014-2); Modern Handicraft Inc., Kansas City, MO; 1989
  • Lunde, Anders S.; Whirligigs for Children Young and Old; (ISBN 9780801982347); Chilton Book Co., Radnor, PA; 1992
  • Lunde, Anders S.; Easy to Make Whirligigs; Dover Publications, 1996
  • Lunde, Anders S.; Making Animated Whirligigs; Dover Publications, 1998
  • Lunde, Anders S.; Whimisical Whirligigs; (ISBN 0486412334); Dover Publications, 2000
  • Lunde, Anders S.; Action Whirligigs: 25 Easy to Do Projects; Dover Publications, 2003
  • Marling, Karal Ann; Wind & Whimsy: Weathervanes and Whirligigs from Twin Cities Collections; Minneapolis Institute of Arts,2007
  • Pettit, Florence Harvey; How to Make Whirligigs and Whimmy Diddles and Other American Folkcraft Objects (ISBN 0690413890 / 0-690-41389-0); Thomas Y. Crowell, New York, New York, U.S.A., 1972
  • Pierce, Sharon; Making Whirligigs and Other Wind Toys; (ISBN 0806979801 / 0-8069-7980-1); Sterling Pub Co Inc; New York, New York; 1985
  • Schoonmaker, David & Woods, Bruce; Whirligigs & Weathervanes: A Celebration of Wind Gadgets With Dozens of Creative Projects to Make; Sterling/Lark, New York, 1991
  • Schwartz, Renee, Wind Chimes & Whirligigs, Kids Can Press, 2007
  • Wiley, Jack; How to Make Propeller-Animated Whirligigs: Penguin, Folk Rooster, Dove, Pink Flamingo, Flying Unicorn & Roadrunner, Solipaz Publishing Co., 1993


Two of my whirligigs were made by a craftsman in Gastonia, N.C.—a huge roadrunner that unfortunately was broken in pieces by Grandfather tree when a limb fell on it, and an Indian paddling a canoe that I finally had to bring inside to save it from falling apart.
I have a fisherman and an airplane made by a man named Berry (last name now lost to me) who lived in Lancaster, S.C., but is now deceased.

I bought a metal whirligig of a dog at a fire hydrant that I bought in Raleigh, N.C. at a craft store. It doesn’t twirl much now because there isn’t enough machine oil in the world to keep its parts in moving condition, but it will last longer than my wooden ones.
When my whirligigs are in motion, my spirit rises and I want to laugh. I love them. Here are some of mine:

(From left to right) Fisherman, Indian paddling a canoe, and a woodsman sawing wood


I bought this one in Nova Scotia. It's sailboats on a re-purposed wire wheel that makes them all whirl around in the wind. (The bear is actually a little cake my niece, Betsy, made for my great-niece, Madeline for her birthday)

Just another view of them. This one has part of my whale weather vane on the far right

My nephews had just stained my deck here

This is a better one of the sailboats and the weather vane

A closer view of the Fisherman, canoe and woodsman 

I have to say, this was one of the most fun blogs for me to write. Too bad I never got a picture of the roadrunner, which was huge, or the metal World War I fighting planes. 
Now you know one of my secret delights. Whirligigs are love in motion.

12 comments:

  1. Sarah;
    What a fun blog to read! I had had a few whirligigs in my time, with a few in my own garden now, and knew they were moving/spinning art or designs/toys, but had no idea they have such a long and fascinating history! I've often seen the vintage or antique ones that were more toy-like. Apparently their values are going up, too, so I may have to keep my eyes open. I love to put sculpture/odd art around my yard and it would be fun to look for some more unusual ones. I'd say you have quite a collection. One thing we do have on the ranch are some very old and interesting weather vanes!

    Thanks for this wonderfully fun post!!
    Gail

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    1. Gail, it's amazing how expensive they have become. I feel like ordering one of the books I mentioned so I can make my own. They would probably turn out awful though--not much of a carpenter.
      Don't they just make you want to laugh?
      Thank you so much for coming by and reading my blog. I really appreciate it.

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  2. Don't you just love a passion? Sarah, what a beautiful and informative posts. As a child I my great grandparents made it a part of my toys along with wooden blocks (My favorite). I revisited some wonderful memories with this post. Loved it. Doris

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    1. Thank you, Doris. I guess whirligigs are really just timeless. They remind me of the past, but they're also in my present. Some of the more modern designs are quite complicated in their movements and design. Just watching them twirl in the wind makes me feel uplifted.
      Thank you so much for coming by and commenting.

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  3. Sarah,
    I'll never look at a pinwheel the same again. :-) Thanks for an informative post.

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    1. LOL Hey Kristy. Some big plastic pinwheel just look obnoxious, but I still love to see 'em twirl. One thing I liked about Nova Scotia was their goal art. Several artists made art out of washing machines and other metal junk that were so adorable. I never thought of art as fun until then.
      Thank you so much for coming by.

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  4. Sarah, what fun! I never thought of whirligigs as folk art, but you make a good point about that -- and I love your phrase "whirligigs are love in motion."

    Your collection is charming...much like your stories. I'm eager to read what you've come up with for Christmas!

    Hugs, sweetheart. :-)

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    1. Kathleen, I'm happy you liked my phrase. I'm struggling with the beginning of my Christmas story. I've rewritten it three times now. You know how important beginnings are. This one is about Penelope Thoroughgood, the widow Banjo mentioned in For Love of Banjo. Once I get the opening right, I'll be home free. It's a good thing I started early.
      Thank you for coming. You always make me smile.

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  5. Sarah, I love the movie Twister. The book it was taken from was written by Jack Bickham, who, at one time, was the English Dept. Chair at the University of Oklahoma. Just trivia. LOL But all that to say, that the places in the movie are real--we have so many towns that have Indian names here, and Jo's aunt was from one of those places--can't think which one now, but it's not all that far from here. Anyhow, all that to say, I loved her whirligigs, too, and that is one of my favorite parts of the movie--just getting to see all those! This is a wonderful post. I never really thought much about having those in my yard -- we have a lot of wind here, usually, and anything with noise would be disconcerting to the neighbors and their dogs (and mine too, probably...)LOL Very interesting stuff--I did not know all this history.
    Cheryl

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  6. Hey there, Cheryl. Most whirligigs don't make any noise, except maybe the squeaking and creaking of wood when they are moving in the wind. Living on the windy plains of Oklahoma would be perfect for whirligigs.
    Loved your tidbit of trivia about the author of Twister, Jack Bickham. It stands to reason that he would write about a tornado since he lived in Oklahoma. I'd rather go through a hurricane than a tornado. They're so unpredictable--and deadly.
    Thank you so much for coming. I know how very busy you are, so I really do appreciate your support.

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  7. Well Sarah, that was very informative... and, to top it all, I've learned a new word today: whirligigs. yeah!

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  8. Liette, I'm happy to have helped you learn this new-to-you word. It's a word that makes you laugh just saying it.
    Thank you so much for dropping in.

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