A whirligig generally combines the functions of a weathervane and a windmill. To be more specific, it’s basically a weathervane with a windmill on one side to help it catch the wind better. Although whirligigs are made to have a practical purpose in showing wind direction, they’ve become more associated with their use in yard ornamentation and as children’s toys. Many have artistic or amusing designs so that the windmill function drives mechanical movements in wooden figures shaped like people or animals.
Many experts believe the whirligig is very old, dating back as far as the 1100s in Europe, but they were definitely a common children’s toy a few hundred years later during the medieval era. In those times, they were also used in farms to show wind direction. Experts believe the whirligig toys in those days showcased individuals spinning swords or other implements, among various possible designs. The version used in farms may have been more practical with no special ornamentation.
A whirligig can be used either with a person’s hand or in the ground as an ornament or for some other purpose. The use of them as a hand toy is generally associated with a time when children relied on very simple wooden toys. Over time, it has become more common to see a whirligig as a yard ornament. In fact, some people who collect these devices may put dozens of them in their yards.
Sometimes a whirligig is made so that the figure's arms are the windmills, but they can also be a bit more complex than that. Some are made to harness the power of the wind and use it to drive complex mechanical movements. For example, a whirligig could be made with a figure sitting on a bicycle. The windmill would capture the wind power and cause the figure to pedal the bike, possibly even making the wheels turn.
In many cases, a whirligig could be made from plastic, but traditionally, they are made from wood. They may be weatherproofed to some extent, but that isn’t always enough to keep them from being damaged by exposure to moisture outdoors. The vast majority of them have rotted away over time. For this reason, older whirligigs are fairly hard to find, and they have become a major collector’s item. There are also many craftsmen who produce them using very traditional methods, and these are collected as well.