Lucky's History of the Yo-Yo
Lucky Meisenheimer, M.D. is
the author of "Lucky's Collectors Guide to 20th Century Yo-Yos –
History and Values" Lucky is also the chairman of the American Yo-Yo
Association's History and Collecting Committee.
The true origin of the yo-yo will in all probability
never be known. Many countries have m
the claim to the invention of the toy, but documented evidence is lacking.
Some historians argue a multiple site origin, but currently the most accepted
theory is that the toy originated in China around 1000 B.C. Although there
are no records of the yo-yo in China, the Diabolo has been documented in
China which is a very similar toy. Linguistics experts have indicated that the name "yo-yo", although
used in the Philippines for hundreds of years to describe the toy, is Oriental
historians argue that the yo-yo is Greek in origin. There is evidence to
support early Greek yo-yos circa 500 B.C. as Greek disks do exist that have a
similar design to a modern yo-yo.
argue whether these were true yo-yos or perhaps used for spools for thread or
ornamental supports from which drapery cords were tied. The fact that these
discs were ceramic and fragile would lead one to believe that they were not used
as toys. Proponents of the yo-yo theory of these discs site a Greek bowl with a
decoration of a young boy playing with what appears to be a yo-yo.
In any event, the yo-yo is certainly an ancient toy that
has survived the centuries. There is no evidence though to support the often
sited claim that the yo-yo is the second oldest toy. This statement has been
repeated so often that it has been accepted as fact but there is no proof to
support this assertion.
popular but fabricated story of the yo-yo is that of a centuries old Filipino
weapon. The story is about an assailant in a tree with a heavy oversized yo-yo
waiting for a victim to pass below. At the critical moment the yo-yo would be
hurled at the victim's head presumably rendering him unconscious. A near
miss would still allow the assailant a second opportunity. Physics of the
yo-yo make the story improbable. Although there is no question that the toy
existed in the Philippines for centuries, as a popular toy, there is no
documented evidence that it was ever used as a jungle weapon. The story was
popularized by Duncan yo-yo demonstrators in the '30s, many of whom were from
the Philippines. It was a great story and helped to sell yo-yos, but it has
been repeated so often that it has become an urban legend.
The surge of
popularity of the yo-yo in the late 18th century lead many historians
to believe that the yo-yo was introduced
to Europe, from the far east possibly by missionaries, around that same time
period. A recent discovery of a Dutch tile with an image of a boy playing a
yo-yo from approximately 1630-1650, predates the French references by
approximately 150 years. This tile also predates an early 1765 reference from
India where the toy was known as a Chucki (pronounced Choo key). The appearance
of the toy in Europe a century and a half before previously thought opens up the
question, "Has the yo-yo been a ubiquitous toy throughout time but just poorly
documented"? Clearly childhood pastimes were not subjects that many authors or
artists chose to document in the middle ages so this may be a strong likelihood.
During the late 18th century the yo-yo became
very popular in France amongst the nobility. The toy was not referred to as a
yo-yo during this period; the most common name in use was "bandalore". The
word "bandalore" is French in origin. The English also used "bandalore" as
well as the word "Quiz" to identify the toy. Other French words used include
the country), de Coblenz (a city with a large number of noble French
refugees) and incroyable (a French
terms all have an important historical connection with the French Revolution.
Being a very fashionable toy of the French nobility during the time of the
guillotine, when the heads of the nobility started being loped off, many of the
nobles wisely emigrated along
with their yo-yos. It is this association of the yo-yo and the displaced
nobles that resulted in these colorful French names for the toy. It is unclear
whether the yo-yo came to England from France due to the turmoil of the
revolution but yo-yos called Quizzes were described as being sold at the
Pecham fair in England in 1789.
The popularity of the toy in the ranks of nobility led to many references of the
toy in this time period. It is interesting that most of these references are to
adults playing with the toy as opposed to children. One can only assume that
children also enjoyed the toy but this was not felt to be worthy of noting because
it was commonplace.
The one notable exception was that of a portrait of Louis
at age four, painted by Madame Viznee LeBrun. This is considered the most
famous illustration of a child with a yo-yo from the 18th century.
Satirical cartoons such as General Lafayette leading a procession of soldiers
playing with yo-yos and Mirabeau with troops and yo-yos were of this period.
Another humorous reference was in the 1793 (English) edition of "The Travels and
surprising adventures of Baron Munchausen" where they were referred to as
quizzes and the act of using them was called "quizzing". "The
matrons, instead of their tongues, had other instruments to convey their ideas:
each of them had three quizzes,
one quiz pendant from the string that sewed up her mouth, and another quiz in
either hand. When she wished to express her negative, she darted and recoiled
the quizzes in her right and left hand; and when she desired to express her
affirmative, she, nodding, made the quiz pendant from her mouth flow down and
the toy was first
introduced to North America is unknown. The first documented reference in the
United States to the toy was a patent in 1866 by James L. Haven and Charles
Hettrick for a new and useful bandelore. It changed the construction of the
yo-yo adding a central rivet to hold the two halves together which
allowed the toy to be made out of metal. Clearly the toy was known in the United
States prior to this but its popularity was unclear.
Over the next fifty years several other patents were listed for variations of
the toy. . The word yo-yo was introduced to America in 1916 in an article
in the Scientific American Supplement titled "Filipino Toys". The article showed
how to make a yo-yo and called the toy by this name.
In 1928, Pedro Flores, a Filipino immigrant began manufacturing the toy as a
"yo-yo" in the United States
and the history of the
yo-yo began. Flores did three very important things for the toy. First he
named the toy a "yo-yo" and although he had not coined the term himself, as this
was the name for the toy from his native country, the Philippines, and it became
a very popular term in the United States culture and among the press for
describing the toy. Secondly, the Flores yo-yo had the string looped around
the axle in place of being fixed or tied to the axle. This allowed for the
yo-yo to spin at the end of the string opening up a new arena of yo-yo play.
Finally and most importantly he introduced the yo-yo contest which was essential
for the absolute craze that followed.
Although the yo-yo had been around for centuries, it
was the craze of the contest that made the yo-yo one of the most popular toys of
the twentieth century. The demand for the toy was so great in 1929 that Popular
Mechanics published an article on how to make a Filipino yo-yo. Flores
trademarked the name "yo-yo" but Flores did not invent the yo-yo nor did he ever
have a patent for the yo-yo as often is mistakenly written.
actually produced yo-yos for only a very brief
period of time before he sold his yo-yo trademark and company to the Donald F.
Duncan Company. Duncan at the time was a competitor for Flores but did not
have the trademark rights to the yo-yo. Don Duncan was a genius in marketing, and once he had purchased the
trademark rights from Flores, The Duncan Yo-Yo Company became the number one
producer of yo-yos for the next thirty-five years, claiming 85% of the entire
United States yo-yo market during this period of time. The annual appearance of
the Duncan yo-yo man and his contests became a rights of passage for the youth
of America during this period.
Duncan's early success in promoting yo-yos was due, in
large part, to his mastery of free publicity. He used the technique of
combining contest campaigns with local newspaper subscription drives. The
sponsoring newspapers benefited by requiring the entrants to sell subscriptions
for contest eligibility. They in turn, provided free publicity and prizes. The
technique was so successful that Duncan convinced
William Randolph Hearst, the
biggest newspaper magnate of the early 20th century, to use yo-yo
contests to stimulate his circulation. Some of Duncan's biggest campaigns in
the '30s were in conjunction with cities that had Hearst controlled newspapers.
Duncan also tapped into recognition surrounding celebrity
exposure. Celebrities such as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Baseball
Hall-of-Famers Lou Gehrig and Hack Wilson were all photographed with yo-yos in
hand. Paid promotions using popular movie icons such as "Our Gang," were used
in the promotion of the "Gold Seal" and "O-boy" yo-yos. If a town was without a
visible celebrity, public officials did nicely for publicity shots. Mayors,
police chiefs, city health commissioners, all were recruited to promote local
not only sold yo-yos in the United States but worldwide as well. Duncan was
best known for their Gold seal tournament models and fixed string "o-boy"
beginners models but over the decades they produced a variety of specialty
yo-yos. The 30s were best known for their metal whistling yo-yos. They
introduced their first light up yo-yo in 1950, which was also their first
plastic yo-yo. In 1958 the "Butterfly" was released, and although the design
was originally patented over five decades before the release of the "Butterfly"
the name has become synonymous with that design style. The mid 50s and early 60s
were Duncan's biggest era for producing what are now considered some of their
most collectible yo-yos, yo-yos with names like Litening, Rainbow, Chief, Suede,
Day-Glo, Satellite, Champion, Luck-E-JADO, and Super Practice are highly coveted
by collectors. In the early '60s Duncan employed 27 full time professional
demonstrators. At the peak of its production the Duncan factory employed 640
and produced as many as 60,000 yo-yos per day and in 1962, 45 million sold in
may have ruined themselves in their own effective marketing. Their success with
promoting the toy over four decades made the word "yo-yo" a household name.
Challenges to Duncan's sole right to use the name "Yo-Yo" were made by Joe
Radovan of the Royal Yo-Yo company. Joe Radovan was one of Duncan's early
original Filipino demonstrators. In 1937 he left Duncan and formed his own
yo-yo company. In 1965, after a long court battle, Duncan was stripped of the
yo-yo trademark protection by the courts which determined that the word "yo-yo"
had become the generic name for the toy. Although the word "yo-yo" is no
longer a registered trademark in the United States, in other countries such as
Canada, the word "yo-yo" is still trademark protected.
The loss of the trademark "Yo-Yo" was the straw that
broke Duncan's back and later in 1965 America's most famous maker of Yo-Yos went
bankrupt and closed their doors. With the loss of the support of the Duncan
demonstrators few yo-yo contests were held from the mid-60s to the mid 80s. The
yo-yo began to lose some of its previous glory in the United States as a
cultural icon. Although the Duncan trademark was later bought by Flambeau and
plastic Duncan yo-yos began to be produced again in 1969, the era of the yo-yo
man demonstrator in America had passed.
For the rest of the world the yo-yo still retained its
fad like status. Internationally yo-yos continued
to be sold by the millions largely due to Coca-Cola / Russell promotions. From
the late 1950s on ,with the exception of North America, Jack Russell made the
word yo-yo almost synonymous with Coca Cola. Again the key to the success of
yo-yo sales was the contest and through the Russell company they flourished
making the Coca Cola / Russell yo-yo the most familiar yo-yo brand around the
yo-yos still sold by the millions each year in the late 60s and 70s the poplar
presence that it had previously as a cultural icon had diminished. The yo-yo
did occasionally break into the national scene during this time period the most
notable were political in nature. First in 1968 antiwar activist Abbie Hoffman
pulled out a yo-yo and walked the dog while testifying before a congressional
committee. He was found in contempt of court for his actions and this rates as
the most severe reprimand resulting from the play of the yo-yo. Later in 1974
at the height of "Watergate" President Richard Nixon visited Roy Acuff at the
Grand Ole Opry in Nashville Tenn. Roy Acuff was a legend at the "Opry" having
preformed there for over 50 years and part of his trademark act was doing yo-yo
tricks. President Nixon took a couple of throws on stage with Acuff and a
photos of this were released by the major media. Political cartoonists had a
field day with the event. Nixon signed the yo-yo and presented it to Acuff.
Years later the yo-yo was sold at the Acuff estate auction for $16,029.00 making
this the world record price ever paid for a yo-yo.
For centuries the yo-yo had remained very similar in
form and function. In the late 70s and early 80s many technological changes
began to appear in the yo-yo. Tom Kuhn introduced the first take apart yo-yo
the "No Jive 3 in 1". In a brilliant promotion of the new innovation Kuhn also
produced at the time the world's largest yo-yo which was a super sized No Jive
in all details. All wood weighing in at 256 pounds with a 50 inch diameter it
took a crane with a ¾ Dacron rope to operate the toy. The yo-yo made the 1981
"Guinness Book of World Records". Other companies were also off developing new
designs in yo-yos such as Playmaxx weighted rim design and brass axle for longer
spin times, In 1980 Mike Caffery patented an internal clutch mechanism which
allowed for auto return of the yo-yo, and in 1984 it was released as the "Yomega
the yo-yo with a brain". In the same year a little noticed promotional release
in Sweden introduced the most significant change in yo-yo play since Flores
introduced the looped string. The first ball bearing trans axle yo-yo was
produced by Svenska Kullagerfabriken changing the way yo-yos would be played
forever. Interestingly it would be over a decade later before the impact of
this innovation would be fully recognized.
On April, 12, 1985 on the space shuttle Discovery a
yellow plastic Duncan Imperial became the first yo-yo in space. The yo-yo was
part of a experiment series "Toys in space" where
the Duncan yo-yo joined on nine other toys on Space Shuttle Discovery's mission
51-D. Astronaut David Griggs had the honor of being the first person to play the
yo-yo in outer space. The yo-yo made a sequel return to space on July 31, 1992
with the Shuttle Atlantis mission STS-46. Astronaut Jeffery Hoffman used the
"high tech" yo-yo the SB-2 (Silver Bullet-2) to further demonstrate the effects
of weightlessness on yo-yo play.
popularity of the yo-yo got a big boost in 1986 when comedian Tommy Smothers
made his debut appearance as the "Yo-Yo Man" on the Johnny Carson show. This
was followed by a Smothers Brothers Yo-Yo Man Instructional Video released in
1988 which reportedly sold over 200,000 copies. Finally the yo-yo man made
further appearances on the Smothers Brothers show in 1988 and 89 which also
showed some of the legendary yo-yo demonstrators such as Dan Volk, Dale
Myerberg, Barney Akers, and Bob Rule.
In 1988 the newsletter Yo-Yo Times was first published
by Stuart Crump. Yo-Yo times galvanized the yo-yo community and became the
major source of yo-yo information for yo-yo enthusiasts. Yo-Yo times continues
to be the longest running yo-yo periodical and certainly influenced the
following surge in the yo-yo's popularity during the 1990's.
The 1990s saw a resurgence of the yo-yo's popularity to
highs never before seen. The "Return of the Yo-Yo" traveling show which featured
the Duncan Family Collection toured the Untied States in the Taubman Malls
during 1990-91 and reintroduced the yo-yo contests. Not only was interest in
yo-yo play stimulated but interest in yo-yo collecting became trendy among
Ultimately the biggest technological advance was the
development of the trans axle. Trans axles allowed for incredibly long spin times
which opened the door to a level of yo-yo play previously
thought impossible. The American Yo-Yo Association's world record sleep time
for a fixed axle yo-yo was set in 1991 by Dale Oliver at 51 secs, currently the
AYYA's trans axle sleep record is 13min 5 secs set by Rick Wyatt on 4/22/01 a
Due largely to the efforts of Dale Oliver, the first
modern world yo-yo championships were held in 1992 and his leadership also
resulted in the formation of the American Yo-Yo Association in 1993.
modern National Yo-Yo championships were held in Chico California in 1993 under the
direction of Bob Maloney who later became the director of the National Yo-Yo
museum in Chico. Yo-Yo competitions changed dramatically in 1996 when Alex
Garcia won the first freestyle competition at US Nationals. Freestyle
competition has now become an integral component for all National and
International events. Yo-Yo play continued to evolve with the introduction of
"off string" tricks where the yo-yo is free from string attachments being used
much like a diabolo. The most recent innovation in yo-yo play was the
development of "Freehand" introduced by Steve Brown. The yo-yo is no longer
attached to the finger but a counter weight is held in the hand allowing the
entire yo-yo apparatus to leave the hand.
The yo-yo is definitely a toy that has survived time and
it will most certainly be a toy that will continue to be played centuries in the
future. The British Association of Toy Retailers voted the Yo-Yo the "Craze of
the Century" for the 20th century.