The History of a Whirligig

Written by jill meyer
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The History of a Whirligig
Inspired by windmills, today's modern whirligigs have a long history. (pinwheel image by Wimbledon from Fotolia.com)

From humble paper pinwheels on sticks to intricate kinetic wind sculptures, the history of the amusing whirligig dates back to wind-propelled toys that may have mimicked the world's first windmills.

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Earliest Inspirations

A crucial part of whirligigs is the weathervane, which was invented in Sumeria between 1600 and 1800 B.C. In 644 B.C., Iranians first used the horizontal windmill for irrigation. However, no whirling toys of this period appear to have survived apart from one Egyptian string-propelled doll from 100 B.C, as documented by toy expert Cyril Hobbins in his book, "Traditional Wooden Toys."

Whirlygigs in Asia

The first known whirligig toy was a twirling propeller made of bamboo, which originated in China in 400 B.C., according to Anders Lunde, author of "Whirligigs for Children Young and Old." The National Palace Museum of Taiwan also displays tiny wind-based ornaments, which the Chinese ruling classes adapted as part of headpieces or hair jewellery, that would twirl and rotate in the breeze.

The History of a Whirligig
Traditional Chinese hair jewellery twirled in the wind like miniature whirligigs. (folk girl image by chinatiger from Fotolia.com)

Whirling Toys in Europe

While the grain-grinding windmill came into use in Europe in the 1200s, Renaissance-era paintings like Pieter Bruegel's "Children's Games" of 1560 show children jousting with whirligigs on sticks. Author Cyril Hobbins notes that by the 1600s, pinwheels (or whirligigs) were for sale throughout Europe and its colonies.

The History of a Whirligig
Children's wind-propelled toys likely took after local sights like this windmill. (windmill image by Bruce Allinson from Fotolia.com)

Toys Reflect Rise of Mechanization

Mechanised contraptions harnessing the elements of nature fascinated people during The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. The collection of the American Folk Art Museum reveals that whirligigs made in rural America reached high levels of technical precision in contrast to their vernacular themes. Created of metal and wood by itinerant craftsmen or farmers themselves, whirligigs feature charming, everyday scenes of birds' wings twirling in oncoming wind, women stirring pots or sailors rowing boats.

Depression-Era Whirligigs

The economic hard times after 1929 demanded simple, nostalgic and low-cost amusements. Hand hewn to sell for cash and cut crudely with jigsaws, blended with metal machinery parts and painted in lively colours, whirligigs had made a comeback.

Whirligigs Today

Whirligigs and their close cousins, weathervanes, are core pieces in contemporary collections of so-called primitive, self-taught and ethnic folk arts. Modern whirligigs use recent technological advances in nearly weightless, ripstop textiles to best display the effect of a breeze in both art gallery spaces and backyard gardens.

The History of a Whirligig
Pinwheels of today are the simplest form of yesterday's whirligigs. (Colourful tops image by Pontus Edenberg from Fotolia.com)

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