There’s a shelf in the corridor leading to my bedchamber  with small figures vying with each other to be heard. They are indeed vying to be heard, for they are whistles. Most of them in simple terractta, some painted in bright colors, childish in their delight.  Several have written underneath Caltagirone and the date, one of a small pig says Matera. In Puglia, a boy might give a whistle to a girl, with a secondary significance of virility. For most of them, I know the potter – Cortellini from Ficulle, and Ricci from Vetralla.  Others remain anonymous, but they all have in common their purpose – that of being heard. They might have been toys, or they might have had a covert meaning. Their ancestors might go back ages, for whistles have been found in archaeological sites. I have a small terracotta bird from 450 B. C. from the Heracleion Museum. It doesn’t whistle, but it even has a lead seal attesting to its provenance. Those I now have will soon go the way of their ancestors when they no longer serve a purpose, as nothing but a collector’s item. Indeed, years ago I met a gentleman whose wife complained that even the bathroom was lined with whistles, and she had no place to put her brushes.

Whistling must be one of the first things men (and I presume it would have been men, not women) learned to do way back when. Basically, whistling means blowing air through one’s teeth, involving the placement of the tongue and  whistles were means of communication, indicating for instance to a sheepdog what direction his flock was to take. Didn’t once we whistle to call a cab? There’s a whistled language on the island of La Comera in the Canaries that makes communication possible across ravines at up to five chilometers distance. Perhaps, the whistle we know best is the wolf whistle, expressing admiration for a pretty girl.

I could have been 4 or 5 when I learned how to whistle. Possibly with a blade of grass. One forgets the details perhaps, but one doesn’t forget the delight in having discovered how to whistle.  It was a sunny day and we (an uncle perhaps?) were walking along a country road. And he taught me how to whistle. How proud I was. It was one of those firsts. Like learning to tie your shoelace.

In asking around, I thought practically everyone knew how to whistle and now find several acquaintances never did learn that skill. Or perhaps if they were girls their mothers said whistling was a boy thing and not for girls. Guess that was once and wouldn’t come up now.

Whistles are perhaps one of the simplest of toys, aside from skipping ropes or activities where you don’t need anything besides what nature has provided, like a stone to skip over the water of a lake. Terracotta whistles make good collector’s items, small and generally quite robust.  Not like the teapots a friend of mine collected which filled the shelves in her dining room and I presume had to be periodically dusted, nor the roses which crowded her terrace. Or the lizards of all sizes and materials, which she hid under a table or had clambering up a wall.

They can be made of bone, or wood, or metal. But the simplest ones are made of terra cotta. My whistles are almost all Italian, for Italy is a land rich in clay, ideal for modelling miniature oxes, horses, birds and even carabinieri, the most elite of Italy’s police forces with the full-dress outfits including trousers with a red stripe down the side and a plumed hat and often an elegant cape. A fine subject for a whistle, sacrilegious perhaps when an adult will say, laughing, he’s “whistling from his behind”. 

A few of my whistles are also expressions of the folklore of other countries. A couple dancing arm in arm, I have one in the shape of a black mermaid, but I can’t get her to sing. She is evidently no Lorelei. One of my favorites is a dovecote with birds peeking out of two rows of little windows. There’s a name or provenance incised in the clay … but I can’t read it.  I’ll just have to presume it’s from Puglia.

I don’t know how to whistle any more, due to age or lack of practice? I’ll have to check with the grandmothers of my acquaintance.

However, whistles are still whistles. And if lucky, one may hear someone going by in the street, whistling a tune from bygone days.

5 thoughts on “Whistles

  1. Love this, and the fotos too! Next time i come for coffee i must see your collection…..hugs and love, margaret


  2. Another delightful essay Erika—wonderful photos. Whistling like music recreates the voices of the long passed. Great notion!


  3. Erika, This is lovely. Reading about your whistles made me smile and, you guessed it, try whistling. Mine is faint but adequate. Just thinking about whistling a tune brings joy. Thank you. Hugs, Linda



  4. Ever since reading this I can’t stop
    thinking about whistling. About the Disney dwarves singing the upbeat, catchy “Whistle while you work.” How that made me want to learn to whistle, which felt like a very grown-up accomplishment. How I wished I could do one of those really loud whistles that some boys could do.

    I speak now as one of those grandmothers you mention when I say that it takes me by surprise and makes me happy when I feel the urge to whistle. As a musician, I use whistling to solidify tricky intervals and favorite spots in the pieces I play. Because sound quality and pitch are easier to control when I whistle, I find that whistling can be especially kind to aging voices of former choristers like me. And it does not require carrying around a piano flute or viola. 🎻🎼🎹 In any case, I have always loved your whistle collection and enjoy having this piece to commemorate it. Grazie.


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