Some of my favourite and often visited old posts have disappeared forever; the blog posts on the kind of children’s toys found by detectorists were popular, especially the one on ‘Shy Cocks’; so hot with search engines that I had to change the title to ‘Unusual Toy’!
Today in my resurrection post I discuss the children’s toy often found and sometimes discarded by rooky detectorists because they think that they have unearthed another piece of rubbish … the whirligig.
My mother used some unusual words. For anything that spun or whirled around she called it a ‘whirligig’. It was a word that fascinated me, and one that I loved to utter, especially because it sounded fun.
William Shakespeare used the word in Twelfth Night as a metaphor for ‘what goes around comes around’; meaning that whatever decisions you make and the way you treat people they will be returned to you one way or another.
The word ‘Whirligig’ derives from two Middle Englishwords, ‘whirlen’ (to whirl) and gigg (top), or literally to whirl a top’. And that is how my dictionary describes it … ‘a spinning or whirling toy’.
The oldest known type is also known as a button spinner or buzzer; simple spinning toys whereby two looped ends of twisting thread are pulled with both arms, causing the button to spin.
When I was a lot younger I used to raid my mother’s button jar looking for one that was particularly large and colourful. Then I’d string it on a long piece of twine and tie the ends together. With the button in the middle and the string held in both hands it was twirled and twirled until a twist was built up in the string. I’d pull the string outward, let my hands come together and then pull outward again. This was repeated was long as the string kept its twist. The spinning button made a humming or buzzing noise as it twirled.
As I said earlier, the lead disc whirligig often found by detectorists is sometimes discarded as just being a lead weight. A couple of those shown below with a ’saw-tooth’ edge, feathered pattern markings, and three piercings and are a crude form of musical instrument and toy. Similar to my button, when pulled taut between two hands, the spinning of the disc produces a rhythmic humming (amplified by the toothed edges), which rises and falls with each pull of the cord.
Forgive me, but I don’t remember who suppled the above picture. If it was you, please get in touch and I will give you a credit (now sorted. Thanks Randy) The examples below are from the UKDFD, kindly provided by Dave Watson and D.R. Edwards.
Such toys have variously been home-made, not just from buttons, but more recently from cardboard, these being given as a free gift in comics as late as the 1950s-60s. With coloured panels printed on the cardboard the spinning produced a visual as well as audible toy.
These musical toys have their origin in more ancient times when pig metacarpals and metatarsals were drilled and threaded to serve the same purpose. They have been found in Saxon to early post-medieval deposits in Britain. Lead ’saw-tooth’ medieval/post-medieval discs such as these have been found during surveys of Thames foreshore deposits in the City of London.
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. 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 our 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 … http://tinyurl.com/2syewm
Another example sent by one of my subscribers. If you recognise it, please give me a call because I have lost all details and would like to give credit.
Peter writes: Excellent timing for a resurrected post. I found one last week and chucked in the scrap lead bin not having a clue what it was. Cheers John – educational as always.
My posts were once warmly received on Toddy’s Scottish Forum and members took a keen interest. The fine examples below were contributed by Alexnikon and The Badger. Alex says:
Great read as usual John. A childhood memory flashed back to me of a 6 year old boy sitting with a piece of card, colouring pencils, string and scissors making whirligigs. No playstations or such like then. More importantly you have identified a piece of lead found on one of Toddys digs identical to an image on your site. Now I know for sure what it is. Thanks John. Keep them coming – Alex
Another example, this time from the PAS database, was mentioned in the Isle of Wight newspaper, OnTheWight.
Do you remember the ‘whizzers’ once made of cardboard and later of plastic which were packed in breakfast cereal boxes? They were round discs with two holes in them which had string threaded through.
After twisting the string a few times the whizzer would make a humming noise and the harder the string was pulled the more noisy it would become. Well, back in the post-medieval period children had the same toy.
Then called a buzz wheel they were made from old coins or tokens. In 2012 a buzz wheel was found on the Island which was made from a token bearing the effigy of a man’s head … Frank Basford, FLO
From The Searcher magazine, June 1999