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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

#WhirligigsAreJoyInMotion by Sarah J. McNeal

Whirligigs Are Joy In Motion by Sarah J. McNeal

I have loved 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 Whirligig

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.

Simple Wind Driven Whirligig

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.

A Mechanical Artistic Whirligig

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:

Kinetic Metal Whirligig

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.

Whirligig Kinetic Art Public Library, O'Fallon, Illinois

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’.

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.

My Whirligig Collection

I have used artistic wooden crafts in two of my Wildings series stories. Both wooden craftsmen were from the Thoroughgood family and both stories were Christmas short stories.



After the bags were placed inside the door, Banjo glanced around the room. “I see you’ve got a Christmas tree this year, Penelope.” He stepped over to the tree and examined it, touching some of the wooden ornaments. “Gil, these are nice. I know you made them. I can tell your work. You’re the best carpenter in town, maybe anywhere in the state. You ought to make these to sell.” He peered at Gil with those dark eyes framed in wire-rimmed spectacles. “The townsfolk talk about your rocking chairs and tables, but I bet they never saw anything like these beauties. Oh. Before I forget, Belle wants to talk to you about ordering new chairs for the Iron Slipper. Seems some rowdy cowpokes got into a scuffle over a card game last week and some chairs met their end.” Banjo grinned.

Gil wanted to dislike Banjo, but he just couldn’t. For all that he was orphaned as a baby and left to be raised by whores, he was one of the kindest young men he knew. “I’ll drop by her place on the way home and see what she wants.”

Just for a fleeting moment, Gil saw the shadow cross Penelope’s face. Probably just the mention of the Iron Slipper or Belle probably still brought the memory of Evan’s death to her and the pain that went with it.

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Matilda unwrapped the brown paper from the present using the utmost care so as not to damage it. Beneath the wrappings she found a box shaped like two doves, one with its head pointed in one direction and the other with its head in the opposite direction. The meticulous detail of the carved wings made the feathers seem real. Between the two doves was a red heart. The heart, the wings, and the beautiful fans of feathered tails moved slightly when she ran her fingers over them. Try though she might, she could not find the lid to open the box and see what was inside.

When she glanced up to ask Sterling how to open the box, he stood before her with a grin spread across his face. Before she could ask, he answered her unspoken question. “It’s a puzzle box, darlin’. There is a way to move the pieces to open the box. It took a while for me to draw up the plans and quite some time to get it to work just right. I thought about what pleasure it would be for you, so I was determined to make it just right.” The light of pride fairly glowed in his eyes.

“It’s a beautiful thing like a work of art. That it is made into a puzzle box with such intricacy and thoughtful design, makes it the most significant present I have ever received.” She heard something shift inside the box when she moved it to examine it more closely to discover how to open it. “There’s something inside?”

Sterling nodded his dark head. “Yes. In fact, the greater gift is inside the box.” Again, he grinned with a boyish delight. “I made it big enough to hold all your treasures. Do you like it?”

BUY LINK (Kindle): A Christmas Visitor

Diverse stories filled with heart




My Amazon Author’s Page

Prairie Rose Author Page

The Wildings

Prairie Rose Blog

Fantasy & Dreams Blog


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


  1. I haven't finished reading this but it's a fascinating history of whirligigs. Love it. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you, M S. It IS kind of long. I just kept cramming in more stuff. In any case, I'm glad you came and read part of it.

  2. This is so interesting. Over the years, I've had several in my yard. They're so much fun. Thanks for your post.

    1. The first whirligig I can remember was at my grandfather McNeal's house. I was so fascinated by it as a child, but now I love them. They are so cute and I love when the wind gets them going.
      Thank you for coming by, Ann!

  3. So much fascinating detail here. I'd never thought about them being so old, and never even noticed the references in literature. Thanks so much for your really thoughtful and interesting post.

    1. I was surprised by how much history there was behind whirligigs, too, Christine. I just thought they were something my grandparents were in to. Visiting the Smoky Mountains and places like Chimney Rock, NC I saw all these shops with a zillion whirligigs out front twirling away and they made me smile.
      My family all came from North Central Pennsylvania. I was born in Bloomsburg, a little college town there. After we moved to North Carolina when I was five, we often visited our relatives up in PA. The Amish dominate that area so there are many Amish crafts--and plenty of extraordinary whirligigs. One of my favorites is an Amish woman washing clothes on a scrub board.
      Thank you so much for your comment, Christine.

  4. They are fun and fascinating, are they not? Thanks for taking me on the trip of their story.

    1. I love whirligigs for sure and certain. I'm so glad you liked this piece, Doris.
      Thank you so much for dropping by!