Written by Guest Columnist: Greg Schelkun
Whistles are one of the oldest know musical instruments. They are made from a hollow ended column. Whistles sound by blowing air into the column, past a hole cut in the column wall, making the air vibrate. The earliest whistles were fashioned from the bones of birds. They have also been made from clay since the time of the early Egyptians, South American and Asian civilizations, long before the Christian era. Many of these were formed to look like birds, because of their similar sounds. The earliest European wind whistles were French from the middle ages. They were modeled after saints, developed from the idea that the whistle held the breath of life.
The earliest known ceramic European water whistles have been found in Holland, dating to the 17th Century and molded to look like owls. The column of the whistle ended into a bowl, the body of the owl, which was made to hold water. This made the whistle warble like a bird when air was blown into the stem in its back. These were known as water whistles. There are also a few known Delftware whistles in the form of dogs from this period. These were usually handmade.
The earliest British whistles date to the 18th century. These were plain wind whistles, usually made of soft paste molded into simple animal forms, and glazed in the usual period colors. This type of pottery was most commonly known as Prattware. By the 19th Century we find examples of both wind and water whistles. Water whistles almost always took the form of birds, from roosters to doves and cuckoos. Wind whistles would take many other animate forms. The potters started molding whistles in human forms such as jesters and "Punch", children, historical, and hysterical figures. The vast majority of these whistles were formed in molds. This affirms that these early whistles were mass produced, most likely as novelties for adults, or toys for children. These novelties were developed as premiums won at country fairs, and became known as "fairings". These toys were even incorporated as instruments in Schuman's "Toy Symphony". Even though they were produced in numbers, few have survived. These whistles are not marked, but their manufacture and glaze are typical of the local potteries of the time. Early whistles were fully polychromed. Later whistles displayed less and less color, until the early 20th century, when these whistles bore little more than a few well placed brushstrokes.
By the early 20th century, the clay whistle gave way to the pot metal, tin, celluloid, and then the plastic whistle. The new media made the whistle less expensive to produce and more ubiquitous a toy. As popular as these toys were in their day, few have survived. Children outgrew these fancies and many of them were discarded. The survivors make great little treasures.
About Greg Schelkun:
Greg has been collecting whistles since 1986 when he was presented with a whistle as a gift. Since then he has been on journey of discovery into the history and development of the oldest known wind instrument. Recently, he published a book, Blow Me!, which contains photos and commentary on a wide variety of whistles from the first millemium BCE through the mid-20th century.
Editor's note: As the article mentioned, there are surprisingly few whistles available for sale and not many articles or books available about them. Here are a few: