Volvelles are another name for wheel charts, info charts, circular slide rules, etc. They reached their peak in the mid-century, though they’re still made today (I saw one in the wild in the paper section of the art store earlier this week). And while I especially appreciate the graphics of the older models, I think they have a thing or two to teach us in the age of information overload.
The idea of volvelles is that you only reveal one piece or set of information at a time. In the example above, the hand signals for a particular letter of the alphabet (in this case K) are shown. To see other letters you have to turn the dial, so you don’t have to worry about them for the moment, just focus on K.
The volvelle above is one of my favorites for the way it uses the slots as arms holding flags, for including both a front and a back, for the great colors, and for the tiny drawing of itself in the instructions at the bottom. I also like the odd shape at the bottom, and the ridges for the letters, and the specific instructions telling you where to put your finger. It all adds up to a lovely little volvelle.
Above you can see a few more from my collection hanging in my bedroom (the semaphore volvelle is near the bottom right). I haven’t finished hanging them all yet and a few are too fragile to hang, or don’t have a hole through the center (they’re mostly balanced on nails through their centers). In the mean time, I’ve been trying to scan then, though it’s slow going, especially since the majority are too large for my scanner, so I have to spend hours piecing together partial scans. I post the scans (and occasionally other volvelles I find elsewhere on the web) on one of my Tumblr blogs, The Volvellery, and in a set on Flickr.
I got interested in volvelles one day when I had vague memories of star charts that spun around to show the stars visible on a particular day. I asked friends if they knew what such wheel charts were called, and one pointed me to Jessical Helfand’s book, Reinventing the Wheel. I got a copy and was smitten, but was also keen to hold some of these beautiful objects in my own hands. Images of them are lovely, but ultimately unsatisfying. Many of them have two sides, and unless you have the volvelle in your hands you can’t see this:
That’s the inside of the Farm Calculator and Gestation Computer you can see one side of here. Look at that handwriting! Lovely. That particular volvelle is another favorite. It’s made of metal and clearly designed to survive the rigors of farm life and provide important information to farmers. Aren’t the arrows great?
There are a lot of geographic volvelles like the Chart of Knowledge for Europe, and a lot of political volvelles, like the Presidents of the US from Carnation. Many were advertising give aways from Tip-Top Bread, your local uniform supply shop, or your neighborhood plumber. Some are quite tiny, while others like the Farm Calculator above are larger. There are even a few double volvelles.
So I like volvelles for the graphics, for the lettering, for the creative variations on a theme, and for the smart manipulation of information in an easy-to-read way. I also love how each one opens up a world, often one I either never knew existed or never really thought about.