Doc 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” He is also the former chairman of the American Yo-Yo Association’s History and Collecting Committee.
Let me start by saying that we got the ancient history of the yo-yo wrong from the beginning, and I am as much to blame as anyone. If you have a copy of my book “Lucky’s Collector’s Guide to 20th Century Yo-Yos – History and Values” you will note the history in this article is differs from the book. That is because we know more about the early history of the yo-yo than we did twenty years ago when I wrote the book. The exact origin of the yo-yo will in all probability never be known, but we do currently realize many of the historical pieces that we thought were depicting yo-yos were not. One of my favorite quotes from “The Immune” is “conventional wisdom is the worst wisdom of all.” The yo-yo community has been using conventional wisdom for decades repeating fabrications because they create an engaging storyline that we would like to believe. Unfortunately, these oft-repeated origin stories are creative, but not factual.
Many countries have claimed the invention of the toy, but the documented evidence is lacking. Some historians argue a multiple site origin, but currently, the most accepted theory is that the toy originated in Asia around 1000 B.C. Although there are no records of the yo-yo in Asia during this period, the presence of the diabolo can be documented.
The diabolo (sometimes called the Chinese yo-yo) is very similar to the yo-yo, and I believe the yo-yo evolved from the diabolo or vise versa ” Fig. 1. Recently a Japanese vase depicting skeletons playing both the yo-yo and diabolo has been discovered Fig. 2. This Imari Japanese vase may be dated as old as the mid 17th century and is currently the earliest known piece of artwork depicting a yo-yo. Additionally, linguistics experts have determined the word “yo-yo,” which has been used in the Philippines for hundreds of years to describe the toy, is also etymologically Oriental in origin. All the evidence as mentioned above suggests an Asian origin of the toy. Regardless of the actual provenance, the yo-yo is undoubtedly an ancient toy that has survived the centuries. F
Before we proceed I must step back and refute three of the most repeatedly claimed historical pieces that at one time were believed to depict yo-yos. Photos of these antiquities have repeatedly been published in books and articles mistakenly identified as yo-yos. I will again reference a quote from” The Immune” “Lies undiscovered become truths“. See Fig. 3-5.
The following three photos appearing below (Figs. 3-5) are not of yo-yos or artwork depicting the playing of yo-yos. These represent historical factual errors that have been repeated for decades and have incorrectly become a part of the historical lore of the yo-yo.
There is also no evidence to support the often cited claim that the yo-yo is the second oldest toy. This declaration was a concoction of the marketing department of the Duncan yo-yo company. The repetition of this fallacy has resulted in the statement being accepted as fact, but there is no proof to support this assertion along with plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Another famous but fabricated story of the yo-yo origin is that of it evolving from a centuries-old Filipino hunting device. The story describes a hunter in a tree with a heavy, oversized yo-yo waiting for prey to pass below. At the critical moment, the yo-yo would be hurled at the animal’s head presumably killing or rendering it unconscious. A near miss would allow the yo-yo to return to the hunter for a second opportunity. The physics of the yo-yo make the story highly improbable. Although there is no question that the yo-yo existed in the Philippines for centuries, there is no documented evidence that it used as a jungle hunting tool. Early Duncan yo-yo demonstrators, many of whom were from the Philippines popularized this origin narrative. Although the hunting origin is pure fantasy, it was a memorable story and helped to sell yo-yos. The hunting origin of the toy was printed so often that this has become an urban legend.
The claim that the yo-yo was used as a weapon in the Philippines is not new. The story has been the subject of much debate over the last several decades. The Duncan Yo-Yo Company also used the weapon narrative as a promotional gimmick, but behind the scenes recognized this as a fabrication. One early yo-yo demonstrator claimed that he was the one who manufactured the story. Interestingly, there is good evidence to support the assertation that the yo-yo was a weapon in the Philippines. In 1888 Dr. Jose Rizal, a Filipino national hero, wrote a letter on his transatlantic voyage from America to England: “I embarked for Europe aboard the City of Rome, said to be the second-largest steamer on earth. At the end of the voyage, a periodical is printed on board. I met many people there, and as I had with me a yo-yo, the Europeans and Americans were astonished to see how I used it as a weapon of attack.” So, unless you want to dispute one of the most famous Filipino historical figures’ writings, the question becomes not was the yo-yo used as a weapon in the Philippines, but how was it used as a weapon? Much speculation remains on how the yo-yo might have been used as a weapon, but spinning into someone’s face was not apt to be an overly useful function. Some yo-yos can have a thick leather cord that could be used like a sarong is in martial arts. Dr. Rizal had training martial arts, and it is suggested that this is the mechanism he used the yo-yo as a weapon. Sadly, the speculation will continue, but we know now the yo-yo was used as a weapon in the Philippines, but we may never understand how.
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 lopped 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 during this period, mostly due to political cartoons. It is interesting that most of these illustrations are of 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 note because it was commonplace.
The one notable exception was that of a portrait of Louis XVII, at age four, painted by Madame Viznee LeBrun. The portrait 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.”
The date that the yo-yo was 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. The toy existed in the United States before the patent, but its popularity was unclear. Names other than bandalore were used to designate the toy before being called a “yo-yo,” but bandalore seems to be the most common word to describe the toy during this period.
Over the next fifty years, several other patents were listed for variations of the toy. The first written use of the word “yo-yo” to describe the toy in America occurred in 1916 within an article in the Scientific American Supplement titled “Filipino Toys”. The article describe 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 significant 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 trendy 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 shaft. The non-tethered cord allowed for the yo-yo to spin (sleep) at the end of the string opening up a new arena of yo-yo play. Finally, and most importantly, he hosted the first the yo-yo contest in Santa Barbara, California during 1928, 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 high in 1929 that Popular Mechanics published an article in their July issue on how to make a Filipino yo-yo. Flores obtained the trademark “Flores Yo-Yo” on July 22, 1930, but Flores did not invent the yo-yo nor did he ever have a patent for the yo-yo as often is mistakenly written. The fact the yo-yo was not patentable is confusing because many early yo-yos did display the wording “Pat. Pending” on their seals. This was a scare tactic to prevent other toy producers from manufacturing yo-yos.
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 heightof “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 “Guninness 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 transaxle 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 transaxle. Transaxles 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 transaxle 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.