Unidentified Artist
Luce Center Label
Farmers created whirligigs to entertain their children and decorate their gardens. These colorful, animated devices also added an element of fun to an otherwise demanding life in rural America. This piece shows the everyday activities of churning butter and sawing wood. When the wind blows, the lady’s arms move up and down and the man’s saw moves back and forth. The large painted arrow on the back of the whirligig suggests it was also used as a weather vane.
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase from the folk art collection of David L. Davies


Consider the unremarked knowing and ways of doing and saying that lie beneath even the most trivial of everyday activities.

Plants in our gardens have their unofficial names that have nothing to do with their tin scientific labels. ‘Foxglove’s, ‘kangaroo paws’, ‘Christmas bush’, etc. The list is almost endless and often varies from place to place. What is known as a ‘diaper’ in America is a ‘nappy’ in Britain and Australia. The same goes for the folk names of fish and of different types of rain. You know about these things only if you are a gardener, fishing person and/or live in a particular place, usually from childhood, or at least over a long time.

Inhabitants of the English city of Canterbury and surrounds will be familiar with the local whimsy: ‘Why kill ‘em and cart ‘em to Canterbury?’ Understanding this fragment of apparent folk nonsense proves your indigenous credentials. The saying depends on knowing that the towns of Wye, Chilham and Chartham are all located in the countryside around the county town of Kent. What does it mean? Nothing. Except to identify belonging to a place and the people who do, and have, called it ‘home’.

Natives of Hamburg have a similar trick. When the words ‘Hummel, Hummel’ are spoken, those in the now must respond with ‘Mors, Mors’. This whimsy involves yarn about a man who moved into the home of a former soldier named Hummel and was made the butt of derision by local children calling out the former resident’s name. The squatter would retort ‘Mors, Mors’. This exchange became a form of greeting between Hamburgers.

These small wordplays are the trivial tips of extensive pyramids of knowledge, identity, sense of place and belonging. For those in the know, their significance is much deeper and more intense than their apparent superficiality suggests. And so it is with many small things. The taken-for-granted banalities of all our lives actually carry vast reservoirs of fundamental meaning that, if we lost, we would find ourselves bereft. Not to have the dandling songs and play rhymes of childhood to distract and amuse our children and grandchildren and the making of the whirligig pictured above would leave an interactive hole that it is hard to imagine being filled by anything else. The rituals of birth, anniversaries, coming-of-age, marriage and our inevitable endings, all subtly structure all our lives.

The small things are almost endless. The cooking and recipes, sewing, knitting and other domestic skills we perhaps picked up in childhood. Proverbs, sayings and superstitions are things we just ‘know’. Home remedies, some more folk belief than efficacious, but nonetheless known and practiced or recommend, as required by coughs, insect stings or warts. Ways to tend the garden, what tools to use for which chores and how to drive a nail or use a saw, what knots are best and how to tie them.

There may be family and community traditions of song, music, dance or other everyday arts and crafts, not to mention feasts and festivals, sacred and secular, such as Guy Fawkes Night, Blessing of the Fleet and the dozens of other saints’ days, commemorations and folk frolics that dot the calendars of every faith.

Now, in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, these and the many small things of life will come to mean a great deal.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: