Few toys have as long and storied a history as the illustrious yo-yo. It’s been around so long, and in so many iterations, that it has rightly earned the moniker of toy-legend. The simple combination of wood or plastic and string has stood the test of time since the ancient era, and remains one of the world’s most beloved toys.
Historians believe the yo-yo was developed in ancient China, but the earliest yo-yos were discovered in Greece from about 500 B.C. They were probably part of a coming-of-age ceremony, decorated with mythological creatures, and offered to the gods at the temple. A boy playing with a yo-yo was painted on a Greek vase from that period, and the National Museum in Athens has the actual terra-cotta yo-yos from the time. By the 16th century, the yo-yo had traveled to the Philippines, where it became a popular children’s toy. A modified version was also used by hunters – they tied a rock to a string and repeatedly hit their prey while sitting safely in a tree.
As the centuries passed, the yo-yo made its mark in numerous countries around the globe, but perhaps not as prominently as in the Philippines, where it would become a national pastime. As a result, in 1928, Filipino-American Pedro Flores started the first American yo-yo company in California. He decided on the name “yo-yo”, which came from the Filipino word for “spring.” It was made from hand-carved wood, and boasted a new feature: the string was looped around the axle instead of being tied to it. This allowed the yo-yos to spin in place or “sleep” , a move that enabled many of the yo-yo tricks of today, such as “Walk the Dog,” “Rock the Baby,” and go “Around the World.”
Local California businessman, Donald Duncan, saw great potential in this new toy. Seizing a business opportunity, he bought out the Flores Company and hired Pedro Flores to work with him in promotions. Then he got a trademark for the word “yo-yo” so that competitors had to use other, less well-known names like “the twirler,” “the comeback” and “the whirl-a-gig.” And in a brilliant marketing move, he got free advertising in the many newspapers of tycoon William Randolph Hearst in exchange for hosting yo-yo competitions that required participants to sell subscriptions to Hearst newspapers as their entry fee.
In 1946, Duncan moved the company to Luck, Wisconsin because of the abundance of hard maple trees needed to make his yo-yos. It became known as “The Yo-Yo Capitol of the World,” turning out Duncan yo-yos at the rate of 3,600 an hour. By 1962, Duncan had sold 45 million yo-yos in a country that only had 40 million kids. Eventually, sales inevitably took a downturn, while Duncan had to contend with the rising legal costs of keeping the yo-yo name trademarked.
When the Federal Court of Appeals ruled in 1965 that Duncan’s trademark was null and void, the yo-yo name became fair game to competitors. Duncan eventually went bankrupt and was bought by the Flambeau Plastics Company. They still put out a line of 12 different Duncan yo-yos today. In 1967, Fred Strombeck bought Duncan’s yo-yo turning lathes and used them to market the “Medalist” yo-yo. These were made until 1972 and were the last Duncan-shaped wooden yo-yos for 24 years.
In the groovy ‘70’s, yo-yo manufacturers began to jazz up their yo-yos. They introduced yo-yos that glowed in the dark, whistled, came in the hourglass-looking “Butterfly” shape, and in some cases began adding weight to the rims of their yo-yos to increase their spin. The “No Jive 3-in-1″ was patented in 1978 by Tom Kuhn and had a replaceable axle and was the first yo-yo that could be taken apart by hand. “The yo-yo with a Brain,” patented in 1980 by Michael Caffrey had a centrifugal spring-loaded clutch mechanism that made the yo-yo return automatically to the user’s hand when its rotation slowed to a pre-determined rate. Transaxle yo-yos were developed in the 1990′s, using ball bearings to dramatically increase spin time.
Furthermore, yo-yos were part of a scientific experiment in 1985 when they were brought aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. How did a yo-yo perform in zero gravity? It could still be spun, but would not “sleep” at the end of the string since it did not have the pull of gravity to pull it down.
The American Yo-Yo Association was founded in 1993, the year the first modern National Yo-Yo Contest held in Chico, California. Duncan made the move into TV advertising a few years later with the “Video Boy,” a campaign showing that yo-yos were more exciting and fun than video games. They also commissioned Dr. James Watson of Ball State University to develop the “Teaching Science with the Yo-Yo®” lesson program. This five-day science planner gave educators an interactive, hands-on program that showed them how to teach science theories to their students using classroom-based yo-yo lessons.
Today, thousands of years after its creation, you can still walk into any respectable toy store and pick up a Duncan yo-yo. Few toys can boast that sort of longevity. Then again, few toys have the universal appeal of the yo-yo. Calling it “a classic” simply doesn’t do it justice. It is perhaps one of the greatest toys ever invented and, if history is any indication, people will still be playing with them for many years to come.
Now, we’ve told you just about everything we know about the yo-yo, but we’re sure you have plenty of memories of your own. Tell us all about your experiences in our comments section, as we tip our hats to this truly legendary toy.