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What is a Whirligig?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By B707 — On Sep 08, 2011

The larger whirligigs that were used on farms provided the farmer with a way to do a number of things. It gave him a way to tell which direction the wind was coming from. And he could get power from the windmill part to run some kinds of farm machines.

I wonder what time in history they did this. Was it back in the middle ages or more recently? I'm always amazed at how power can come from wind.

It's amazing how many useful items are made into toys for kids. Sometimes, they are exact duplicates and other times, they are very creative.

By live2shop — On Sep 07, 2011

I've been enlightened by this article. I always thought that a whirligig was a slang word for any little toy or object that blew around with the wind or I've heard it used to describe a ride at an amusement park that twirls the rider around.

It's interesting that whirligigs were mostly made of wood and were a common toy in the middle ages. I'll bet they gave hours of fun to children of that era.

By SkittisH — On Sep 06, 2011

@hanley79 - That dachshund whirligig sounds so cute! My mom had a whirligig that looked like a hummingbird while I was growing up, so when I think of them I tend to imagine the little hummingbird with its wing-whirls spinning in the wind.

I don't know about the same specific design as your aunt's dachshund one, but I'll bet you can find lots of great whirligig designs in a a book of whirligig plans. You can order them online, but I'd recommend looking at your local library first. if they have a whirligig book, I'll bet you could pay for a few photocopies of the plans and make your own whirligig based on that.

Good luck, it sounds like a fun hobby to get into!

By VivAnne — On Sep 06, 2011

@aishia - Yeah, it is kind of funny that whirligigs of all things have been one of the inventions that have stuck around. I think they might have endured so well partly because they've evolved to match our needs over the years.

Not that whirligigs have literally "evolved", but how we use them has. They started as something practical -- weather vanes and windmills on farms to show wind direction -- with children liking the whimsical side of them enough to play with toys based on them, right?

My theory is that by the time people didn't need whirligigs as a practical thing on farms anymore, people had not only grown used to having them on farms, but they had probably grown up playing with whirligig toys, and had nostalgia attached to them. Let's face it, whirligigs are fun even today -- that's why so many people, often adults, use them as garden accessories now.

By aishia — On Sep 05, 2011

What a neat article! I had no idea that whirligigs had been around so long. The 1100s was a long time ago -- the humble whirligig has been around longer than the Internet, toothbrushes, and pants for women, to name a few.

Isn't it funny that such a simply designed thing would stick around for so long? Usually when things do that, they're the really practical stuff, like buttons, not something toy-like such as a whirligig.

By hanley79 — On Sep 05, 2011

Does anybody know where you can get patterns to make whirligigs of your own at home? I've never seen anything that looked like whirligig pieces in the store, but I've taken a couple of my store-bought whirligigs apart and the pieces don't look hard to make.

I would give making one from scratch a go, but since I have a specific design in mind, I was hoping there was somewhere I could go to see if they had it in stock. See, when I was growing up my aunt had this adorable whirligig that was a dachshund dog with four pinwheels that spun as the legs. I want to make my own.

Any advice on where to shop for whirligig patterns? Thanks!

By StarJo — On Sep 04, 2011

When I bought a condo on the beach last summer, I knew that I needed some oceanic whirligig designs to go on the property. The constant ocean breeze would keep them moving all the time.

Sand dunes and sea oats surround the condo, and seashells line the driveway. I went to several crafty shops around the area, and I found a seagull whirligig. It has a white head and gray wings that spin around. The post is also gray, so it blends in nicely.

When my nephew first saw it, he didn’t like it. He said, “That’s not the way seagulls fly!” Then, I showed him how you can throw sand at the spinning wings and it will scatter everywhere. He played with it for hours.

By seag47 — On Sep 03, 2011

A man living on my street is a three-dimensional artist. He has made several metal whirligigs that look like they could be used as weapons.

They are all abstract art. Various pieces are twisted into coils, fashioned into spears, and bent into loops that spin around with the breeze. I told him one day that he’d better have a good alarm system on his house, because if someone wanted to do him harm, all they would have to do is pluck up one of his whirligigs and hurl it at him.

He told me that he has seen his metal whirligigs spin strong enough to harm insects during strong winds. He likes to sit outside before the heart of a storm arrives and enjoy his creations whipping around as fast as they can. One of them took the wings off of a horsefly, and another knocked a wasp senseless.

By cloudel — On Sep 03, 2011

My neighbor has some beautiful garden whirligigs. They look exactly like daisies, but the petals spin around in the wind. The white flowers with yellow centers rest on top of green posts of varying heights.

She staggered the height of the posts to make them look more realistic and interesting. She placed about twenty of them throughout her flower garden, and they definitely stand out. In addition to their movement, they are the only white objects in the garden. You can even see them in the moonlight.

When the wind is really strong, the daisies look more like chrysanthemums, because the petals blur together in one big spinning lump of white. I am considering making a garden entirely out of whirligigs next year.

By orangey03 — On Sep 02, 2011

I remember a simple whirligig toy I got every Easter. It was made of four metallic, brightly colored pieces. When I blew on them, they would spin, and the faster I blew, the faster they would whirl.

The whirling motion brought about a blur of shiny colors. I remember bright blue, red, and purple combining in a magical whirlwind. This whirligig was beautiful even when at rest, but when it was spinning, it was special.

This toy was so simple, yet I always looked forward to getting one each year. They were easily damaged, so they didn’t last long, but they were extremely enchanting while they did.

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