Ceramic Whistles

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. Whistles have been made from clay since the early Egyptians, South American, and Asian civilizations, long before the Christian era. Many of these were formed to look like birds, because they sounded similar.

The earliest known ceramic European 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 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. Wind whistles would take many other animal forms. 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. Even though they were produced in numbers, few have survived. These whistles are not marked, but their manufacture and glaze are typical of the Staffordshire 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.

Into the early 19th century, the potters started molding whistles in human forms such as jesters and "Punch", children, historical, and hysterical figures. These novelties soon became premiums won at country fairs, and became known as "fairings". These toys were even incorporated as instruments in Schuman's "Toy Symphony".
By the early 20th century, the clay whistle gave way to the pot metal, celluloid, and then the plastic whistle. The new media made whistle less expensive to produce and more ubiquitous a toy.


Information provided by: Greg Schelkun 700 E Street, #102, San Rafael, CA 94901 / email: gksch@comcast.net 

questions / comments? email: Steve Birks