So where have these magical ornaments come from, and why are they so popular? Also known as Whirligigs, from the Middle English words whirlen (to whirl) and gigg (top), it’s hard to place exactly how far back people have been enjoying their spinning sails.
The American whirligig had a boom in popularity in the 1930s as a way for farmers and craftsmen to earn a living during the depression. Easily made with scrap materials, they could sell for a dollar – which was enough to feed a family for a day! One of the most popular kinds of whirligig at the time was the simple pinwheel, usually made from cheap celluloid. These more basic spinners paved the way for wind spinners which turned with the breeze but did not have a complex mechanism or depict a scene, unlike the traditional whirligig.
With the invention of more efficient ways to manufacture steel – especially lightweight stainless or powder-coated steel – making complex wind spinners became far easier, and craftspeople stepped away from traditional whirligigs towards the more complex results that could be achieved with a modern wind spinner. This started a new phase in the kinetic art movement towards kinetic sculptures: huge spinners made from metal designed to twirl in such a way that makes them resemble an optical illusion, twisting and bending in ways that at first seem impossible.