You’ve probably smiled many times at pinwheels as you walked past them in someone’s yard, not knowing you were admiring a 10,000-year-old folk art form.
Attach weather vanes to windmills and you’ll get pinwheels, an ancient device whose sole purpose is to delight onlookers.
Although once very popular, pinwheels have declined in popularity, except among the young at heart. Some local fans keep the historic devices alive.
Each civilization depends on the climate for agriculture or navigation invented the simple pointer that indicates the direction of the wind. Representations are found in Samaria, Egypt and China. We still trust them.
Windmills, inclined blades attached to a hub, turn wheels that grind grain, pump water, or generate electricity, are almost as old as weather vanes. The genius who merged weather vanes and windmills is forgotten, but not his legacy.
Medieval European tapestries show children playing with small workhorse pinwheels at one end of a stick and 4-bladed propellers at the other end.
This was a time of chivalry and knights on horseback wielding spears and swords to rescue maidens in distress. The 1440 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defined “whyrlegyge” as “any spinning toy”.
In the late 1700s in colonial America, waving human figures (holding swords, shovels, pitchforks, and other implements) were popular.
When George Washington rode back to Mt. Vernon after the Revolutionary War, he brought his “whilagigs” saddlebags for Martha’s grandchildren.
Washington Irving in his 1820 “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” wrote of “a little wooden warrior who, armed with a sword in each hand, fought bravely against the wind on the pinnacle of the barn.”
In the late 19th century, popular pinwheels portrayed Indians paddling canoes, birds flapping their wings, men sawing wood, and women washing clothes in a tub.
The first settlers on the south bank of the Peace River inlet in Charlotte Harbor were Fred and Anna Howard in 1875. They were joined the following year by Fred’s brother Jarvis and his family.
Jarvis kept a diary and recounted their first Christmas together in 1876. Among the gifts they exchanged was a “pinwheel” from Fred and Anna to the Jarvis family. The size and design of the contraption were not indicated.
Whirligigs experienced a renaissance during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Working men could make pinwheels out of scrap wood and sell them in their front yards for a dollar. This would feed a family of four for one day. (I know.)
Interestingly, the pinwheels sold well. They were relatively cheap and lifted your spirits when times were bleak.
A favorite toy during the depression was the pinwheel, a basic pinwheel. Dime stores sold them for ten cents, of course. They were built with a square of colored celluloid, the first plastic, whose ends were split, bent, and stuck into a stick. You created the wind to spin the pinwheel by running or holding it out of a car window.
A handsome three-tier windlass windlass, with counter-rotating multi-colored vanes, graces a patio across the street from the Punta Gorda Isles Yacht Club.
Southwest Florida’s most spectacular pinwheel stands about ten feet tall in Punta Gorda. It spins merrily at the western end of Olympia Avenue, near the Visual Arts Center and Fishermen’s Village.
Its vertical and horizontal sheets of crimson and polished stainless steel were created, and are maintained, by Stephen Schwarz, a fellow at the Center for the Visual Arts. He has several other works of art in his house.
Traditional pinwheels are made by hobbyists like Gerry Philbrick of the Punta Gorda Isles. He prefers traditional designs like flying cardinals and little men briskly sawing wood in the breeze.
Many history and art museums have collections of whirligigs. Private artisans create revolving “gardens” for amusement and profit. Roadside craft vendors offer a wide variety of pinwheels for sale.
The best salesman in these parts is Chris “Kringle” Williams, the “toymaker” in Fort Ogden on SR 17 between Punta Gorda and Arcadia. His “Santa’s workshop” is set back from the road but easily visible. He and his wife Dolores preside over a salesroom of thousands of handmade novelties in a historic general store building.
The artisans, or artisans, will find a book by Anders Lunde interesting and instructive. “Whirligigs Design & Construction” (Chilton Book Company, Radnor, Pennsylvania) can be ordered at any bookstore.
Lunde is credited with reviving the pinwheel a quarter of a century ago. A well-known painter and wood sculptor, Lunde won first prize in a sculpture at the 1981 Durham, NC Art Guild Juried Show. He received two awards for his pinwheels at the 1983 North Carolina Craft Juried Show.
His book contains easy-to-follow instructions and patterns for building pinwheels, from pinwheels to elaborate groups of various animated figures.
CAUTION: Exposure to windlass could penetrate you.
August 17, 2000