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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 made 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 in origin.     Other 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. Archeologists 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.  

 Another 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 l'emigrette (leave the country), de Coblenz  (a city with a large number of noble French refugees) and  incroyable  (a French dandy).     These 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 XVII, 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 recoil again."


When 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 modern 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.  


Flores 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 yo-yo campaigns.


Duncan 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 one year.


 Duncan 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 world.


Although 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.


The 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 players.


  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 shocking difference.


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.


The first 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.


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