“A little wooden warrior who, armed with a sword in each hand, was most valiantly fighting the wind on the pinnacle of the barn,” wrote American author Washington Irving in his famous short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, published in 1820. The writer was describing perfectly the workings of a simple whirligig, sometimes called a wind toy.
In the construction of the figure Irving describes, a shaft runs through the shoulders. When the wind blows, the arms carved in the form of broad paddles spin like propellers.
When mounted on a free-moving shaft, a whirligig can serve as a weather vane, but most often the whirligig is mounted on a post and serves no other purpose than to amuse those who view it. Having at least one part that spins or whirls, a whirligig is a decorative whimsy that holds great appeal with today’s collectors of Americana.
Mentioned in Colonial American times, the wind-driven whirligig probably originated with the immigrant population. “Traditionally, the first American examples were models of Hessian solders and were supposedly made by Pennsylvania settlers of German origin in mockery of the German mercenaries employed by the British during the Revolutionary War,” writes William C. Ketchum Jr., in The New and Revised Catalog of American Antiques (1980: Rutledge Books Inc.).
Ketchum acknowledges there is little support for the Hessian-soldiers story. However, folk artists did take delight in spoofing military officers and lawmen. “Their serious expressions and upright poses are undermined by arms that flail uncontrollably in the wind,” writes Beatrix T. Rumford and Carolyn J. Weekley in the book Treasures of American Folk Art: From the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center (1989: Little Brown & Co.).
Because whirligigs were invariably made of wood – usually pine – and placed outdoors, few early examples have survived the elements of harsh weather over time.
As compared to later productions, whirligigs made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have more moving parts and exhibit more complex movements, e.g., a rooster pecking at an ear of corn, a man sawing a log, or a woman washing clothes.
Most whirligigs currently available to collectors date to the 20th century and are considered folk art. Unlike antique weather vanes, which can sell for many thousands of dollars, whirligigs are affordable to the great majority of American buyers.
Found at country auctions, barn sales, and online, whirligigs can sometimes be picked up for bargain prices. However, be aware that whirligigs are easily copied. There are fakes in circulation that are being passed off as old to unsuspecting buyers. If the paint appears to be fresh and there is little sign of weathering, it is possible the object is fairly new. Bottom line: buy from a knowledgable trustworthy source.
Find folk art and whirligig treasures in Jasper52’s weekly Americana sales.