North Lima inventor recalls heyday of his whirling ornament
By Ashley Luthern
John Garver’s most famous invention, a Christmas ornament, is known by many names: a birdcage, spinner or twinkler.
But the one that seems to pop up the most often is twirler.
Garver, 82, created an ornament that was plastic with a metal pin, or spinner, that would move when it was warmed by lights on a Christmas tree or any heat source.
“It was a wheel with flair. It’s a simple
cylinder with a spinner. The trick is to have a spinner that’s so sensitive that it picks up heat from a light or a hand,” said Garver, who resides in North Lima.
In 1954, he struck a deal with the Mahoning Valley-based Plakie Toy Co. to produce the ornaments. The dazzling trinkets, priced at 50 cents, were an instant hit with 1,000 sold in one day at the former Strouss’ department store in downtown Youngstown, Garver said.
“It was the first invention I had gotten a royalty from,” he said, noting the patent has since run out.
The next year, there were orders for 3 million and even more the following year, but a problem arose. Garver and others had been cutting the center pin — used to conduct the heat — by hand.
“It’s just a common pin, but a machine was used and it dulled pins, and that was the difference as to whether it works or not,” Garver said.
The mistake ended the twirler ornament reign, he said.
Leann Rich, manager of education at The Arms Family Museum on Wick Avenue, said the museum received a large collection, including twirlers, when the Plakie Toy Co. went out of business in the 1990s.
Rich said one year, the Arms Museum displayed a tree decorated only with the twirlers, and it was one of the most popular exhibits.
The museum offers twirler ornaments in its gift shop, but already sold out this year.
“We’re looking to see if we have a few more we can put out,” she said.
The twirlers are rare because they were manufactured only for a short time, Rich said. “And because the heat from the lights that would make them twirl also melted the plastic, so not a whole lot of them are left,” she added.
Garver said he’s corrected that problem with a new design made of stamped anodized aluminum and is researching a ceramic model, too. A few companies are interested in the revamped design, he said.
Since the twirler heyday, Garver, a physicist, has invented numerous other products, ranging from tennis racket improvements to handles for jump stretch bands, and taught science in Boardman for 30 years. Still, he may best be remembered for the twirler ornaments.
“I get calls every year from people who want them. They’ve looked up the patent and seen my name on it,” he said. “People are still so fascinated by them.”