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A whirligig is an object that spins or whirls, or has at least one member that spins or whirls. Whirligigs are also known as pinwheels, buzzers
Buzzer (whirligig)
A buzzer , is an ancient mechanical device used for ceremonial purposes and as a toy. It is constructed by centring an object at the midpoint of a cord or thong and winding the cord while holding the ends stationary. The object is whirled by alternately pulling and releasing the tension on the cord...

, comic weathervanes, gee-haws, spinners, whirlygigs; whirlijig; whirlyjig; whirlybird; or plain whirly. Whirligigs are most commonly powered by the wind, but can be hand or friction powered, or even powered by a motor. They can be used as a kinetic
Kinetic art
Kinetic art is art that contains moving parts or depends on motion for its effect. The moving parts are generally powered by wind, a motor or the observer. Kinetic art encompasses a wide variety of overlapping techniques and styles.-Kinetic sculpture:...

 garden ornament
Garden ornament
A Garden ornament is an item used for garden, landscape, and park enhancement and decoration.The category can include:*bird baths,**bird feeders,**nest box-bird houses*columns - cast stone*fountains,**rocks and boulders with basins...

. They can be designed to transmit sound and vibration into the ground to repel burrowing rodents in yards, gardens, and backyards.

Types of whirligigs

Whirligigs can be divided into four categories: Button
In modern clothing and fashion design, a button is a small fastener, most commonly made of plastic, but also frequently of seashell, which secures two pieces of fabric together. In archaeology, a button can be a significant artifact. In the applied arts and in craft, a button can be an example of...

, Friction
Friction is the force resisting the relative motion of solid surfaces, fluid layers, and/or material elements sliding against each other. There are several types of friction:...

, String
Twine is a light string or strong thread composed of two or more smaller strands or yarns twisted together. More generally, the term can be applied to any thin cord....

 and Wind
Wind is the flow of gases on a large scale. On Earth, wind consists of the bulk movement of air. In outer space, solar wind is the movement of gases or charged particles from the sun through space, while planetary wind is the outgassing of light chemical elements from a planet's atmosphere into space...


Button whirligigs

Button whirligigs (also known as button spinners and buzzers
Buzzer (whirligig)
A buzzer , is an ancient mechanical device used for ceremonial purposes and as a toy. It is constructed by centring an object at the midpoint of a cord or thong and winding the cord while holding the ends stationary. The object is whirled by alternately pulling and releasing the tension on the cord...

) may be the oldest whirligigs in historical terms, requiring only a piece of clay or bone and a strip of hide. Native American cultures had their own version of this toy in 500 BC, long before European settlement. Many a child of the Great Depression
Great Depression
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s...

 from the southern Appalachians and Ozarks remembers a button or token, or coin and a string as the primary spinning toy of their youth.

Button whirligigs are simple spinning toys whereby two looped ends of twisting thread are pulled with both arms, causing the button to spin.
To build a button spinner, loop a string or heavy thread through two opposing holes of the button, and tie the ends together. Put the loop over your thumbs with the button hanging. Spin the button around until the strings are completely twisted on both sides. Then pull the strings taut. The button will spin rapidly as the string unwinds. When nearly unwound, release tension, but keep the string relatively straight between the thumbs. The angular momentum of the button will cause the strings to twist again in the opposite direction. As the button slows, pull on the string again and its direction will reverse.

Buzzers are button whirligigs that make a sound which can be modulated by how quickly the button is spinning and by the tightness of the string. Button whirligigs are often seen today in craft shops and souvenir stores in the southern Appalachian Mountains
Appalachian Mountains
The Appalachian Mountains #Whether the stressed vowel is or ,#Whether the "ch" is pronounced as a fricative or an affricate , and#Whether the final vowel is the monophthong or the diphthong .), often called the Appalachians, are a system of mountains in eastern North America. The Appalachians...

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
The bamboo-copter or bamboo dragonfly is a toy propeller that flies up when its shaft is rapidly spun...

 or bamboo butterfly, was invented in China in 400 BC. While the initial invention did not use string to launch a propeller
Propeller (aircraft)
Aircraft propellers or airscrews convert rotary motion from piston engines or turboprops to provide propulsive force. They may be fixed or variable pitch. Early aircraft propellers were carved by hand from solid or laminated wood with later propellers being constructed from metal...

, later Chinese versions did. The first known depictions of whirligigs are string powered versions in tapestries from medieval times.

Friction whirligigs, also called Gee-Haw's, depend on the holder rubbing a stick against a notched shaft resulting in a propeller at the end of the shaft turning, largely 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 another staple of 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
Kinetic energy
The kinetic energy of an object is the energy which it possesses due to its motion.It is defined as the work needed to accelerate a body of a given mass from rest to its stated velocity. Having gained this energy during its acceleration, the body maintains this kinetic energy unless its speed changes...

 through rotation or a more complicated transfer of rotational energy
Rotational energy
The rotational energy or angular kinetic energy is the kinetic energy due to the rotation of an object and is part of its total kinetic energy...

 to power a simple or complicated mechanism that produces repetitive motions and/or creates sounds. The wind simply pushes on the whirligig turing one part of it and it then uses inertia.

The simplest and most common example of a wind-driven whirligig is the pinwheel
Pinwheel may refer to:* Pinwheel , a children's show on Nickelodeon that ran from 1977-1990.** Pinwheel , a channel which would later be the Nickelodeon channel...

. 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 terminal speed fairly quickly at low wind speed

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. Conversely the terminal speed is smaller when thin or short blades with a smaller surface area are utilized, 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 Cardinal with Wings illustrated at left.

Etymology of the word

The word whirligig derives from two middle English words: whirlen (to whirl) and gigg (top), or literally ‘to whirl a top’. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the 1440 Promptorium Parvulorum, the first English-Latin Dictionary, which contains the definition, "Whyrlegyge, chyldys game, Latin: giracu-lum Thus, it is likely the 1440 version of whirligig referred to a spinning toy or toys.

Origins and evolution

The actual origin of whirligigs is unknown. Both farmers and sailors use weathervanes on an ongoing basis and the assumption is one or both groups are likely the originators. By 400 BC the dragon butterfly, a propeller launched by rolling a stick had been invented in China. Wind driven whirligigs were technically possible by 700 AD when the Sasanian Empire began using windmills to lift water for irrigation
Irrigation may be defined as the science of artificial application of water to the land or soil. It is used to assist in the growing of agricultural crops, maintenance of landscapes, and revegetation of disturbed soils in dry areas and during periods of inadequate rainfall...

. The weathervane which dates to the Sumerians in 1600-1800 BC, is the second component of wind driven whirligigs

In Chinese, Egyptian
Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt was an ancient civilization of Northeastern Africa, concentrated along the lower reaches of the Nile River in what is now the modern country of Egypt. Egyptian civilization coalesced around 3150 BC with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the first pharaoh...

, Persian, Greek and Roman
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

 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
Tapestry is a form of textile art, traditionally woven on a vertical loom, however it can also be woven on a floor loom as well. It is composed of two sets of interlaced threads, those running parallel to the length and those parallel to the width ; the warp threads are set up under tension on a...

 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 http://www.levity.com/alchemy/ss20.html

A book published in Stuttgart
Stuttgart is the capital of the state of Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany. The sixth-largest city in Germany, Stuttgart has a population of 600,038 while the metropolitan area has a population of 5.3 million ....

 in 1500 shows the Christ child in the margin with a string powered whirligig.

The Jan Provost attributed 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
George Washington
George Washington was the dominant military and political leader of the new United States of America from 1775 to 1799. He led the American victory over Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army from 1775 to 1783, and presided over the writing of...

 brought ‘’whilagigs’’ home from the Revolutionary War. What type is unknown.

By the mid 18th century weathervanes had evolved to include free moving “wings”. http://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/1754-american-whirligig. These “wings” could be human arms; pitchforks; spoons, or virtually any type of implement. The 1819 publication by Washington Irving
Washington Irving
Washington Irving was an American author, essayist, biographer and historian of the early 19th century. He was best known for his short stories "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle", both of which appear in his book The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. His historical works...

 of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is a short story by Washington Irving contained in his collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., written while he was living in Birmingham, England, and first published in 1820...

 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’’’’.

An example of an 1800 to 1850 whirligig can be found at the McCord Museum of Canadian History: http://www.musee-mccord.qc.ca/scripts/viewobject.php?Lang=1&accessnumber=M981.210§ion=196

By the latter 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. The period between 1880 and 1900 brought rapid geographic expansion of whirligigs across the US. 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
Great Depression
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s...

 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.

The modern scene

Whirligigs as art

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

Whirligigs in literature

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

 in Twelfth Night, uses the whirligig as a metaphor for "what goes around, comes around."

O. Henry
O. Henry
O. Henry was the pen name of the American writer William Sydney Porter . O. Henry's short stories are well known for their wit, wordplay, warm characterization and clever twist endings.-Early life:...

 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.
Lloyd Biggle, Jr.
Lloyd Biggle, Jr. , was a musician, author, and internationally known oral historian.-Biography:Biggle was born in 1923 in Waterloo, Iowa. He served in World War II as a communications sergeant in a rifle company of the 102nd Infantry Division; during the war, he was wounded twice...

 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
Paul Fleischman
Paul Fleischman is an American author of children's books. Both he and his father, children's author Sid Fleischman, have won the Newbery Medal. Paul is the 2012 US author nominee for the international Hans Christian Andersen Award.-Early life:...

, 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.

Whirligigs in the movies

In the movie Twister, Helen Hunt
Helen Hunt
Helen Elizabeth Hunt is an American actress, film director, and screenwriter. She starred in the sitcom Mad About You for seven years, before being cast in the romantic comedy As Good as It Gets...

's aunt Meg (played by Lois Smith
Lois Smith
Lois Smith is an American actress whose career in theater, film, and television has spanned five decades.Smith was born Lois Arlene Humbert in Topeka, Kansas, the daughter of Carrie Davis and William Oren Humbert, who was a telephone company employee...

) has a large collection of metal kinetic art
Kinetic art
Kinetic art is art that contains moving parts or depends on motion for its effect. The moving parts are generally powered by wind, a motor or the observer. Kinetic art encompasses a wide variety of overlapping techniques and styles.-Kinetic sculpture:...

 whirligigs in her front yard to warn her of approaching tornadoes.

Whirligigs as folk art

When whirligigs became recognized as American folk art
Folk art
Folk art encompasses art produced from an indigenous culture or by peasants or other laboring tradespeople. In contrast to fine art, folk art is primarily utilitarian and decorative rather than purely aesthetic....

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

The photo on the right is of a traditional whirligig commonly found in Bali, Indonesia. 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. This example was found near Clarkrange, Tennessee
Clarkrange, Tennessee
Clarkrange is an unincorporated town in Fentress County, Tennessee, United States, near the crossroads of U.S. Route 127 and Tennessee State Route 62. The 2010 census reported the population of Clarkrange at 575....

 on the Highway 127 Corridor Sale
Highway 127 Corridor Sale
The Highway 127 Corridor Sale is an outdoor second-hand sale held annually for four days beginning the first Thursday in August along U.S. Route 127. The event has been promoted as "The World's Longest Yard Sale."...

. It represents an interesting example of a combination mechanical and sound producing whirligig.

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
Bamboo is a group of perennial evergreens in the true grass family Poaceae, subfamily Bambusoideae, tribe Bambuseae. Giant bamboos are the largest members of the grass family....

, fastened with rusty nails and wire
A wire is a single, usually cylindrical, flexible strand or rod of metal. Wires are used to bear mechanical loads and to carry electricity and telecommunications signals. Wire is commonly formed by drawing the metal through a hole in a die or draw plate. Standard sizes are determined by various...

 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 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
Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Lancaster is a city in the south-central part of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is the county seat of Lancaster County and one of the older inland cities in the United States, . With a population of 59,322, it ranks eighth in population among Pennsylvania's cities...


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
Fountain, North Carolina
Fountain is a town in Pitt County, North Carolina, United States. The population was 533 at the 2000 census. The town is a part of the Greenville Metropolitan Area located in North Carolina's Inner Banks region.-Geography:...

 made whirligigs from his retirement until his death in 1998. Mr. Gay’s wind driven whirligigs were made of bicycle
A bicycle, also known as a bike, pushbike or cycle, is a human-powered, pedal-driven, single-track vehicle, having two wheels attached to a frame, one behind the other. A person who rides a bicycle is called a cyclist, or bicyclist....

 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
Volunteer fire department
See also the Firefighter article and its respective sections regarding VFDs in other countries.A volunteer fire department is a fire department composed of volunteers who perform fire suppression and other related emergency services for a local jurisdiction.The first organized force of...

, which sold them off at $75 each.

Near Plantersville, Alabama
Plantersville, Alabama
Plantersville is an unincorporated community in Dallas County, Alabama. It lies near the county's border with Autauga and Chilton Counties. Plantersville was named for the local cotton planters and plantations. The town is home to Dallas County High School and J. E. Terry Elementary...

 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
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Chapel Hill is a town in Orange County, North Carolina, United States and the home of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and UNC Health Care...

 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 of Lucama, North Carolina
Lucama, North Carolina
Lucama is a town in Wilson County, North Carolina, United States. The population was 847 at the 2000 census.-Geography:Lucama is located at ....

. Mr. Simpson has constructed a "whirligig farm" on his land in Lucama, North Carolina, which has been profiled by PBS
Public Broadcasting Service
The Public Broadcasting Service is an American non-profit public broadcasting television network with 354 member TV stations in the United States which hold collective ownership. Its headquarters is in Arlington, Virginia....

, the subject of a online photographic essay at the Minnesota Museum of Science, and an article in American Profile. One of Mr. Simpson's creations stands in front of the American Visionary Art Museum
American Visionary Art Museum
The American Visionary Art Museum is an art museum located in the Federal Hill neighborhood at 800 Key Highway in Baltimore, Maryland and that specializes in the preservation and display of visionary art...

 in Baltimore, Maryland. Mr. 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
Bellows Falls, Vermont
Bellows Falls is an incorporated village located in the town of Rockingham in Windham County, Vermont, United States. The population was 3,165 at the 2000 census...

 by John Whitney, and continues to reproduce this early American craft. John's whirligigs are clear cut pine logs, all parts are handmade (even the crankshaft), individually traced & band-saw cut and hand sanded giving them the best 4 season balance & durability.

Wilson, North Carolina
Wilson, North Carolina
Wilson is a city and the county seat of Wilson County in the Coastal Plain region of the U.S. state of North Carolina. The 18th largest city in the state, Wilson had a population of 49,167 according to the 2010 census.- Geography :...

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.

Mass production

Today, large volumes of traditional American whirligigs are produced in stamped and painted metal in China and are widely available across the country. More limited production of wood whirligigs in traditional patterns can be found in virtually every sizable community along the Appalachian Mountains.