For hundreds of years, noisemakers of all kinds have been used for all kinds of purposes. In this posting, I’m looking at the history and the impact of antique whistles, specifically those made from the 1700s and 1800s, up to the mid-1900s.
Whistles have been made out of innumerable materials for hundreds of years. Bone, ivory, wood, silver, steel, brass, and plastic, but it wasn’t until the 1700s that the first industrially-produced whistles started being manufactured.
For much of history, whistles had been made by hand – usually out of natural materials like wood, bone, or ivory. Except for in a few specialised industries and professions, whistles were generally regarded as toys or musical instruments, their practicality as a noisemaker unrealised, or at least unappreciated, for much of history.
One of the first industries to see a practical use for whistles beyond being playthings was the navy. Long, thin pipes with spherical bowls or balls at the end were carried by boatswains (or ‘bosuns’), and these were used by the boatswain and his assistants (boatswain’s mates) to pass orders on the crowded, noisy decks of early sailing ships. As it was impossible to hear shouted commands from one end of a ship to the other, and over the noise of the wind, waves and creaking timbers, boatswain’s pipes were used instead.
The extremely high-pitched sound of the pipes could easily be heard over even the most intense of storms, and over time, short tunes and series of pitches were used to signal various commands such as All Hands on Deck – Weigh Anchor – Boats Away, and so-on. Boatswain’s pipes are still used in the navy today, although they’re more for ceremonial use, rather than for passing orders.
Organised, official, state-run police-forces started becoming a reality in the early 1800s, starting in Scotland, then spreading to London, then the rest of Britain, and eventually around the world.
Early police constables and patrolmen manned their beats and called for help using heavy, wooden rattles. Rattles were easily broken, were uncomfortable to use, were heavy, and could be taken from the officer and used as a weapon. They were also not very loud, and in a busy street, a rattle was indistinguishable from the clatter of horseshoes – rendering it virtually useless.
Metropolitan Police Whistle from the 1930s. Made by J. Hudson & Co.
Whistles had been used on and off throughout the history of policing, but it wasn’t until the 1870s and 1880s that rattles were finally phased out entirely, and replaced with whistles. Whistles were louder, smaller, lighter and easier to use. They started replacing rattles on the London Metropolitan Police force (Scotland Yard) in 1883-1884, where they were famously supplied by Joseph Hudson & Co.
Joseph Hudson made his fortune when his dual-chamber pipe whistle was presented to Scotland Yard. He won the coveted contract to supply whistles to the London police force and his company, J. Hudson & Co (today, the Acme Whistle Company) grew by leaps and bounds, to become one of the largest, and most famous whistle-companies in the world!
What Were Whistles Used For?
Once it was found out how to manufacture large amounts of whistles, people suddenly realised that they needed whistles for a lot of different reasons! Joseph Hudson & Co alone, sold whistles to the police, to the army, to the fire-department, to sporting referees, to train guards, to naval officers and sailors, to railway conductors, cyclists, the boy scouts, the girl guides, and to the general public, as well!
The Acme BOY SCOUT whistle, from about 1920.
Over time, specific shapes and styles of whistles were used for different organisations, and today, whistles with markings on them which link them to specific institutions or organisations, such as hospitals, prisons, specific police-forces, fire-departments or army units are highly collectible.
Whistles on a whole, started dying out as a practical form of communication in the last quarter of the 20th century. Walkie-talkies, portable radios and mobile-phones meant that it was no longer necessary for so many people to carry whistles anymore. Organisations that had once carried whistles for decades, such as the police, fire services, the army and the navy started giving them up.
J. Hudson & Co. General-Service Whistle issued to the British Army during WWI. Dated to 1915.
Today, whistles are still used for sporting matches, or for safety and survival, but beyond this market, their use has dropped significantly. Some people still buy them for personal safety, for training dogs, for cycling and for emergency situations, but apart from exceptional circumstances, most other organisations or people don’t use them.
My Whistles Video
To close off this posting, here’s a video I uploaded a few days ago, displaying my own whistle collection: