Likely you have smiled many times at whirligigs as you drove past them in someone’s yard — without knowing you were admiring a 10,000-year-old folk-art form.
Hitch weather vanes to windmills and you get whirligigs – an ancient device whose only purpose is to delight onlookers.
Though once widely popular, whirligigs have declined in popularity except for those young in heart. A few local fans keep the historic devices alive.
Every civilization dependent on the weather for farming or seafaring invented the simple pointer that indicates wind direction. Representations are found in Samaria, Egypt and China. We still rely on them.
Windmills – canted blades attached to a hub – turn wheels that grind grain, pump water or generate electricity – are almost as old as weather vanes. The genius that melded weather vanes and windmills is long forgotten, but not his/her legacy.
Medieval European tapestries show children playing with small whirligigs of a hobbyhorse on one end of a stick and 4-bladed propellers at the other end.
This was a time of chivalry and knights on horses wielding lances and swords to rescue maidens in distress. The 1440 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defined “whyrlegyge” as “any spinning toy.”
In the late 1700s of colonial America, human figures waving their arms — holding swords, shovels, pitchforks and other implements – were popular.
When George Washington rode home to Mt. Vernon after the Revolutionary War he brought in his saddlebags “whilagigs” for Martha’s grandchildren.
Washington Irving in his 1820 “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” wrote of “a little wooden warrior who, armed with a sword in each hand, was most valiantly fighting the wind on the pinnacle of the barn.”
In the late 1800s, popular whirligigs portrayed Indians paddling canoes, birds with flailing wings, men sawing wood and women scrubbing clothes in a washtub.
First settlers on the south shore of the Peace River roadstead of Charlotte Harbor was Fred and Anna Howard in 1875. The following year they were joined by Fred’s brother Jarvis and his family.
Jarvis kept a diary and related their first Christmas together in 1876. Among the gifts exchanged was a “whirligig” from Fred and Anna to the Jarvis family. Size and design of the contraption was not stated.
Whirligigs experienced a renaissance during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Men out or work could make whirligigs with scrap lumber and sell them from their front yards for one dollar. This would feed a family of four for a day. (I know.)
Interestingly, whirligigs sold well. They were relatively inexpensive and boosted spirits when times were grim.
A favorite toy during the depression was the pin-wheel — basic whirligig. Dime stores sold them for ten cents, of course. They were constructed of a square of colorful celluloid – the first plastic – the points of which were split, bent together and nailed to a stick. You created wind to spin the whirligig by running or holding it out a car window.
A beautiful, triple-tier pin-wheel whirligig –with multi-colored, counter-rotating vanes — grace a yard across the street from the Punta Gorda Isles Yacht Club.
The most spectacular whirligig in southwest Florida is about ten feet tall in Punta Gorda. It spins merrily at the western end of Olympia Avenue near the Visual Arts Center and Fishermen’s Village.
Its vertical and horizontal blades of polished and crimson stainless steel was created — and is maintained — by Stephen Schwarz, a member of the Visual Arts Center. He has several more such works of art at his home.
Traditional whirligigs are crafted by hobbyists like Gerry Philbrick of Punta Gorda Isles. He fancies traditional designs such as flying cardinals and little men sawing wood energetically in a breeze.
Many history and art museums feature whirligig collections. Private craftsmen create whirligig “gardens” for fun and profit. Roadside craft vendors offer a wide variety of whirligigs for sale.
The best vendor in these parts is Chris “Kringle” Williams the “Toy Maker” at Fort Ogden on S.R. 17 between Punta Gorda and Arcadia. His “Santa’s workshop” is set back from the highway but easily visible. He and his wife Delores preside over a salesroom of thousands of handcrafted novelties in a historic general-store building.
Craftsmen – or craftswomen – will find a book by Anders Lunde interesting and instructive. “Whirligigs Design & Construction” (Chilton Book Company, Radnor, Pa.) can be ordered from any bookstore.
Lunde is credited with reviving the whirligig a quarter-century ago. A well-known painter and wood sculptor, Lunde won First Prize in a sculpture at the1981 Durham (North Carolina) Art Guild Juried Exhibition. He received two awards for his whirligigs at the 1983 Juried Exhibition of North Carolina Crafts.
His book contains easy-to-follow instructions and patterns for constructing whirligigs – from pinwheels to elaborate groupings of several animated figures.
CAUTION: exposure to whirligigs could entrance you.
August 17, 2000