Knowing what the weather is going to do has been an obsession of man since the beginning of time, especially to farmers. Early on, farmers knew that if they could predict the weather, it would help them plan at least short term for their crops.
One of their rudimentary tools was a weathervane to tell them the direction of the wind. At some point an innovative person put a spinning propeller on their vane hence a tool to help determine wind velocity. This moving weathervane was usually shaped like a person or animal with moving parts such as swinging arms. It is often referred to as a toy even though it had a very practical use. It was called a whyrlegyge and can be traced back to 1440 England.
The Europeans brought the spinning weather vane to America and it quickly became part of Americana folk art. They were particularly popular in Appalachia in the 1800s and even more so in the 1930s. During the Great Depression, carving and selling these wind toys was a way of making extra money for the farm.
Whirligigs are entertaining figures that come in endless shapes and sizes. Patriotic themes such as a waving flag or an Uncle Sam swinging his arms were much loved by the populous. From European windmills to farmers chopping wood or barnyard animals trotting along they amused children and adults alike for generations.
Whirligigs come as either non-mechanical or mechanical. All this means is that the latter has more moving parts that causes the whole figure to move into action with the wind. The former is simpler with just one part of it moving such as an angel waving her wings as the wind blows.
Finding antique whirligigs is a challenge. An outdoor tool does not tend to last forever but wears out as the seasons pass. Whirligigs were usually made from scrap lumber and metal so there was a strike against them before they ever began to swing and arm or wave a flag.
Prices of whirligigs can be very reasonable or totally outrageous. Some that are just a few years old and not vintage can be snapped up for less than a $100. However, once they reach the antique or vintage stage they can sell for a thousand or more even with broken parts. Once a simple tool has now become an expensive part of collectible folk art.
Jean McClelland writes about antiques for HD Media.