The History of Clay Whistles

By Noelle Carver ; Updated September 15, 2017
Clay whistles, shown here with finger holes for various notes, have a storied history.

The whistle is an ancient folk instrument attached to cultures around the world. According to The Whistle Shop website, historians believe the small, hollow-pitched sound-making object originated in ancient China around 2500 B.C. when Chinese night watchmen blew into acorns to alert of an approaching enemy. Other early whistles were made from bones and clay. As an early whistle-making material, clay remained a valuable and durable source for whistle makers into modern day.

Ancient Aztecs

The ancient Aztec played clay whistles during death ceremonies.

Ancient Aztecs, as early as the 12 century A.D., created whistles and flutes out of clay. Artisans also used wood and bamboo but clay had a special significance. To the Aztecs, clay represented the singing mother earth. The Aztecs played the “Dead Whistle” in death ceremonies when an important leader died. They carried the body through the streets where 100 or more “dead whistle” blowers played. The intention of blowing the clay whistle was to communicate with the spirit-world and prepare the souls for the afterlife.

Materials

Originally called "vertical flutes," early musical instruments were made of bone or clay. The earthy, hollow sounds of the clay whistle--unlike the tin, aluminum or plastic ones we may think of today--were a traditional sound over 6,000 years, according to the Sifflets-En-Terre-Cuite website, which tells the story of whistle origins.

Migrations

The whistle made its way from Asia and into Europe around the 11th century. In Ireland, poems and literature mention whistle players. The images of people blowing into whistles appear on medieval Celtic High Crosses, sculptures made of stone.

1800s

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Early in the 1800s, the English began making whistles out of clay. They added the six-finger hole arrangement we relate now to flutes. The English also created whistles out of other materials like tin. According to The Clarke Tinwhistle Company website, Robert Clarke created the original tin whistle resembling the flute. He originally sold his tinwhistles for a penny, so the instrument gained the name "Penny Whistle."

Toys

In the 1900s, parents generally gave their children clay whistles as toys. The Zhbannikovo toy handicraft store in Russia, for example, began producing clay whistles for children. The locally made clay whistles gained fame in Russia in the 1930s, and their popularity spread around the world.

Zhbannikovo made their whistles by hand without any special tools. Historians and collectors recognize a Zhbannikovo clay whistle because the whistles resemble birds, rams, goats and other animals. Each whistle figurine was pyramid-shaped with a three-leg base.

Modern-Day Clay Whistles

Presently in the Russian villages of Zhbannikovo, Rompino and Ryzhukhino artisans make over 40 kinds of traditional, painted clay whistles.

About the Author

Noelle Carver has been a freelance writer since 2009, with work published in "SSYK" and "The Wolf," two U.K. literary journals. Carver holds a Bachelor of Arts in literature from American University and a Master of Fine Arts in writing from The New School. She lives in New York City.