We chose a pinwheel as our emblem for the Museum of Childhood Ireland.
A pinwheel can be homemade from items readily to hand, or inexpensive to purchase. Played with by children regardless of gender or class, and frequently a memento of a wonderful seaside day trip, a pinwheel demonstrates science, engineering, craft, art and philosophy. It has cause and effect action, and moves in whatever way the wind blows. It signals change, or what change, through your own exertions, (blowing) you can affect yourself. Pinwheels also allow a great scope for creative expression. The pinwheel links to time, to seasons, and the cyclical nature of everything.
The pinwheel is a simple child’s toy made of a wheel of paper or plastic curls attached at it’s axel to a stick by a pin. Designed to spin when blown upon by a person or by the wind, It’s a predecessor to more the more complex whirligigs.
During the nineteenth century any wind-driven toy held aloft by a running child was characterised as a whirligig including pinwheels, and growing up in Ireland in the 50s and 60s this is what our family called them. Later in the 70s my younger siblings knew them as windmills. Pinwheels provided children with hours of enjoyment and amusement, both in the making of and playing with them.
Pinwheels have been around for a very long time. The first documented history of a “whirligig” was in China in 400 B.C.
The pinwheel is significant in Chinese culture where its symbolism is “to turn ones luck around”. It is especially used at Chinese New Year celebrations for good luck and fortune.
Pinwheels began appearing in paintings in Europe during the 15th century.
These are the ancestors of the plastic and tin pinwheels we all played with in our childhoods, and are still in use today.
“English-speakers, and particularly children, began spinning whirligigs as early as the 15th century. Since then, “whirligig” has acquired several meanings beyond its initial toy sense. It even has a place in the common name of the whirligig beetle, a member of the family Gyrinidae that swiftly swims in circles on the surface of still water. The word whirligig comes to us from Middle English “whirlegigg” which is itself from whirlen, meaning “to whirl,” and gigg, meaning “(toy) top.”
Smithsonian American Art Museum
The pinwheel has come to represent such diverse concepts as childhood innocence, unseen energy and spiritual freedom. Most of us though just remember the fun, whimsical, playful toys of our childhood that we loved to make, or receive as gifts, and watched blow in the gentle breeze on a lazy sunny, summer afternoon at home or at the seaside.
Pinwheels are as much a part of Irish childhoods as they are representative of childhood the world over.
Liang Jun, Pinwheel maker:
BBC TV, Whirligig 1950s.
^ Fritzinger, Terry; Fritzinger, James (19 April 2005).
“Pioneering Data – A Little History of the Pinwheel (SR12)” (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2007-07-13. Retrieved 2007-07-07.
^ United States Patent Office (17 June 1919). “Design for a Wind Wheel” (PDF)