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Posted on: November 1st, 2013 by hauleymusic No Comments


Simple whirling toys were mentioned in English literature in 1686, and were probably as popular in early America as they were in Europe. Similar toys have also been found in Native American cliff ruins, indicating the toy’s antiquity in North America. One can imagine this toy amusing children from colonial times right through the westward migrations, and continuing to fascinate children today.

Pewter Coin Whirligig

Whirling toys made of hammered lead musket balls or coins too old or thin to be of value have been excavated from early American towns, plantations, and military campsites.

Button whirligig
Button whirligigs (also known as button spinners and buzzers) are the oldest known whirligigs, requiring only a piece of clay or bone and a strip of hide. Native American cultures had their own version of this toy in ca. 500 BC. Button whirligigs are simple spinning toys whereby two looped ends of twisting thread are pulled with both hands, causing the button to spin.

To build a button spinner, loop a string or heavy thread through two opposing holes of the button, and tie the ends together. Put the loop over your thumbs with the button hanging. Spin the button around until the strings are completely twisted on both sides. Then pull the strings taut. The button will spin rapidly as the string unwinds. When nearly unwound, release tension, but keep the string relatively straight between the thumbs. The angular momentum of the button will cause the strings to twist again in the opposite direction. As the button slows, pull on the string again and its direction will reverse.

Buzzers are button whirligigs that make a sound which can be modulated by how quickly the button is spinning and by the tightness of the string.

Wood Buzz Saw
The sound of the whirling disk lends this folk toy its common name of “buzzer”, although it appears in English literature as early as 1686 under the general name for spinning toys, whirligig. The scalloped edge of the buzzer identifies it more particularly as a “buzz saw” toy. In past times the edge was often sharply cut into a sawtooth pattern, but a buzz saw with any shaped edge will produce an impressive loud, whizzing noise when it reaches full speed.

Bibliography and further reading

  • Fitzgerald, Ken; Weathervanes and Whirligigs; Bramhall House, 1967
  • Lunde, Anders S.; Whirligigs: Design and Construction; Mother Earth News, 1983
  • Lunde, Anders S.; More Whirligigs; Chilton Book Co., Radnor, PA; 1984
  • Lunde, Anders S.; Easy to Make Whirligigs; Dover Publications, 1996
  • Lunde, Anders S.; Making Animated Whirligigs; Dover Publications, 1998
  • Lunde, Anders S.; Action Whirligigs: 25 Easy to Do Projects; Dover Publications, 2003
  • Marling, Karal Ann; Wind & Whimsy: Weathervanes and Whirligigs from Twin Cities Collections; Minneapolis Institute of Arts,2007
  • Pierce, Sharon; Making Whirligigs and Other Wind Toys; Sterling Pub Co Inc; New York, New York; 1985
  • Schoonmaker, David & Woods, Bruce; Whirligigs & Weathervanes: A Celebration of Wind Gadgets With Dozens of Creative Projects to Make; Sterling/Lark, New York, 1991
  • Schwartz, Renee, Wind Chimes & Whirligigs, Kids Can Press, 2007
  • Wiley, Jack; How to Make Propeller-Animated Whirligigs: Penguin, Folk Rooster, Dove, Pink Flamingo, Flying Unicorn & Roadrunner, Solipaz Publishing Co., 1993