Whirligigs: Folk art that doesn’t just blow in the wind

A whirligig is any object that spins or whirls. Collectibles often include pinwheels, weather-vanes, and gee-haw whammy diddles.

by Larry LeMasters     Sep 13, 2017 @ 10:23


The word whirligig derives from two Middle English words: “whirlen” (to whirl) and “gigg” (top), or literally “to whirl a top,” and the first usage of the word appears around 1440 CE. While several types can be found, collectors dream about catching the figural, wind-driven, and folk art whirligigs.

Originating as wind-powered kinetic yard decorations, these have large wings on relatively small bodies. The reason being, increasing the blade area also increases the surface area, allowing the wind to collide with the whirligig, causing it to whirl faster, reaching its terminal speed in less time and maintaining that speed for longer times.

The two blade, non-mechanical model is the most common type of folk art, but more complicated ones do exist. The only limit is the builder’s imagination.

The origin of folk art whirligigs is unknown. We do know that the mechanics date back to ancient Sumerian times, roughly 1700 BCE. The first known representation dates to medieval (European) tapestries. These tapestries show children playing with a whirligig consisting of a hobbyhorse on one end of a stick and four blade propellers at the other end.

Even George Washington collected and bought whirligigs from farmers and artists at Mt. Vernon when he returned home from the Revolutionary War.

Figural whirligigs are now recognized as a form of national folk, art and, as such, some museums have extensive collections of them. With recognition as American folk art, prices for figural whirligigs has escalated, causing some collectors to reach deep into their pockets to obtain authentic, Appalachian whirligigs for their collections.

Few of the earliest whirligigs were “signed” pieces, so some collectors seek the work of particular “known” folk artists. Whirligigs from folk artist Reuben Aaron Miller are highly sought after as representative of American 20 th century folk art. But some collectors believe the value and collect-ability of folk art whirligigs has been too uneven, causing the market to be a Seller’s market where greed pushes the market as much as collecting or art does.

Other famous folk artists who made whirligigs include Lester Gay of Fountain, North Carolina, who made whirligigs from bicycle rims; Edith and Gene Lawrence of Plantersville, Alabama, who made and sold whirligigs from their home (Gene became locally known as the “Whirligig Man”); and Elmer Preston of South Hadley, Massachusetts, who made traditional figural whirligigs such as “Farmer Cutting Wood.”

In 1998, a 19 th century Uncle Sam whirligig sold at Skinner Galleries for $12,650. Other figural whirligigs that have sold at auction in the last 20 years include a 19 th century polychrome carved pine cone and copper band figural whirligig that sold for $10,925 and an early 20 th century “Bike Rider” figural whirligig, made of painted wood and sheet metal, that sold for $3,450. Vollis Simpson, of Lucama, North Carolina, is, arguably, considered the best-known, modern whirligig maker. Simpson constructed a “whirligig farm” on his land, displaying 30 – 40 whirligigs at any given time. In 2012, Simpson was named the Arts and Culture winner of Southern Living’s Heroes of the New South.

Wilson, North Carolina, holds an annual Whirligig Festival at the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park & Museum in Wilson. In June 2013, Vollis Simpson’s whirligigs were designated as the official state folk art of North Carolina.

Symbolically, figural whirligigs continue to whirl after the builder’s life ends, symbolizing the fact that life goes on and that, in the final analysis, art is valued more than the artist.

As long as mankind collects folk art, there will be a demand for figural whirligigs since they represent the solitary folk artists, whittling a tree limb into a functional and decorative piece of whimsy—a whirligig.

“Winged Wonder” folk art whirligig by James Eaton. Easton’s work is highly collectible, and this magnificent piece is valued at $7,800.

Antique, “Man Sawing Wood” whirligig from the Smithsonian collection.

Folk art “Butter Churn Lady” whirligig, early 20 th century; $400.

What is a Whirligig?

A whirligig is an object that turns on its pivot in a circular motion as air passes through it. It usually has different parts. One or more of its parts are known to spin or whirls. From the origin, they were called other names like; weather-vans, pin wheeler, gee haws, spinners, whirly bird, or plain whirly.

History of Whirligigs:

The actual origin is not known but just like other wind devices, they are evolved from weather vanes. In the ancient times, sailors, farmers and others used weather vanes to determine wind direction. In the colonial documents, whirligigs were stated to be a wind determining device.

As at 400 BC, in China, a helicopter- like bamboo copter was launched using a rolling stick but in 700 AD, whirligigs were made by the Sassanian Empire. They began using windmills to lift water used for irrigation. In the Egyptians history, the origin can be traced as far back as 100BC. The first use was demonstrated with a string. In the European history as contained in the medieval tapestry which shows children playing with a whirligig. As at mid-18th century, weather-vanes had evolved into free moving “wings” and in 19th century, constructing these devices became a pastime art form. Today, whirligigs are used in designing farm structures and toys for children.

Types of Whirligigs

There are two mechanical and non-mechanical vanes. The mechanical turnstiles have a helix type mechanism. The non-mechanical wind vanes have blades, wings, pinball-like appendages that capture wind and rotation.



This type has a string wrapped around a shaft and then pulled. An example of these whirligigs is bamboo-copter or bamboo butterfly, which was invented in China in 400 BC. Initially, the Chinese had launched a propeller without using a string. It was later inventions that had strings.


This is an ancient mechanical device common in the Ukraine. It is the oldest known whirligig. They can also be called buzzers. These types are often constructed by passing string through two holes on a large button. They are regulated by the speed at which the button spins and the tightness of the string. The whirling object makes a humming sound, giving the device its common name. Buzzers are often common as toys.


These are also called Gee-Haws. They are another staple of craft shops and souvenir stores in the Appalachian Mountains. Friction whirligigs operate when the holder rubs a stick against a notched shaft making the propeller at the end of the shaft to turn, largely as a result of the vibration carried along the shaft. This motion is similar to rubbing sticks together to create fire.


This type works by energy of the wind is transferred into a kinetic energy through rotation. The rotational energy powers a simple or complicated mechanism that produces repetitive motions and creates sounds. The wind simply pushes on the whirligig turning one part of it and it then uses inertia. A pinwheel is the most common example. It demonstrates the most important aspect of a whirligig blade surface. It has a large cupped surface area which allows the pinwheel to reach its terminal speed fairly quickly at low wind speed. Due to the historical beauty of whirligigs made from wooden and metal sculptures, the patronage for whirligigs has been on the increase. Whirligigs have become more desirable due to it’s usefulness and monetary worth. Dozens of antique once abandoned in the museum, churches, mosques etc., are being reconstructed to produce symbols of abstract art. Recent collections can be seen at antique shops Home and factory-made collectible whirligigs are often shown of the four spokes that point north, south, east and west. This is to make them easier to display at home and enhance their sculptural appeal. and make them easier to display in a home. For that matter, weather-vanes were not always equipped with directional indicators.

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