Classic Toys: The Yo-Yo

Retro Staff Comments
1960s Coca-Cola Russell Yo-Yo

1960s Coca-Cola Russell Yo-Yo

The Yo-Yo Craze Lives On

The Yo-Yo is considered to be one of the oldest toys in history, second only to the doll. The oldest surviving example was found in Greece, dating from 500 B.C., although its origins date to much earlier. The yo-yo was a commonly used toy in ancient Greece and was made of wood, metal or terracotta and decorated with mythological creatures. The yo-yos made of terracotta were ceremonial, being offered on an altar to the gods when an individual had grown old enough to leave playthings behind. Ancient cultures also used the yo-yo as a weapon for defense and for hunting.

By the 18th century the yo-yo had made its way to Europe and was referred to as a “bandalore” in France, or a “quiz” in England. Cartoons exist depicting both General Lafayette and the Prince of Wales playing with a yo-yo. By the year 1824, the English novelist Mary Russell Mitford referred to the yo-yo as a toy of a bygone era. But the yo-yo was not about to slip into oblivion.

The origin of the word “yo-yo” is not very clear, but many claim it is derived from the word “yoyo” in Ilokano, one of several native languages in the Philippines. The word “yo-yo” was first entered into a dictionary of Filipino words in 1860. In 1916, “Scientific American” discussed the yo-yo in an article about “Filipino Toys”. Whether or not the word is truly Filipino in origin, the stories continue to insist that it is.

In 1866, James L. Haven and Charles Hettick applied for and received the first US patent for an “improved bandalore”.

The yo-yo did not become a commercial product until 1928 when a Filipino-American, Pedro Flores of Santa Barbara, California opened the Yo-yo Manufacturing Company. He promoted the yo-yo with contests and the fad rapidly caught on. Within a year it was necessary to open two additional factories that employed a total of 600 workers and produced 300,000 yo-yos each day.

In 1930, an enterprising Donald Duncan purchased the Yo-yo Company from Flores. The first yo-yo produced by Duncan’s company was called the “O-Boy”. Flores remained at the Duncan Toys Company to oversee company promotions. The first of these promotions was conducted in partnership with Hearst Publications in 1930. Anyone able to sell three new newspaper subscriptions was eligible for the contest. The resulting sales in Philadelphia alone were 3 million yo-yos in a month’s time.

The first Yo-Yo Competition took place in London, England in 1932. A 13-year-old by the name of Harvey Lowe was the winner. In 1946 Duncan built another factory in 1946 in Luck, Wisconsin to have ready access to the abundant hard maple. The Flambeau Products Corporation was contracted in 1955 to make the first plastic yo-yos for Duncan. Two years later, Donald Duncan retired and his son, Don. Jr. took over the company.

The Duncan Toys Company had a banner year in 1962 in which demand actually exceeded production after Duncan began advertising on television. It was actually more of a media blitz featuring the new Duncan Butterfly, a yo-yo that made it easier for beginners to do competitive tricks. Some of the most well-known yo-yo tricks are walk the dog, sleeping and looping.

The yo-yo craze had pretty much run its course by 1965, the same year that Duncan lost a legal battle with the Royal Tops Company over the rights to the “yo-yo” name. The court ruled that the term was a commonly used one and Duncan did not have exclusive rights to it. The expenses incurred by the Duncan family were such that they had to sell the company and their trademarks. In 1968 Flambeau Plastics, the same producer of the Duncan plastic yo-yos, purchased the company which they still operate today. There continue to be many other manufacturers of the yo-yo as well.

Throughout the 1970s there were many improvements to the yo-yo, most of which concerned the connection of the string to the axle. Many improvements were patented by individuals unassociated with the Duncan Toys Division of Flambeau, Inc.

In 1978 the No Jive 3-in-1 yo-yo was patented by Tom Kuhn, a dentist and yo-yo celebrity. Some feel his invention reinvented the yo-yo. His yo-yo could be disassembled, allowing the axle to be changed out. In 1980 the Yomega Brain yo-yo was patented by Michael Caffrey. It was referred to as “the yo-yo with a brain”, with longer spin times and an automatic return. There was a worldwide Coca-Cola yo-yo craze in the 1980s when the Jack Russell Company and Coca-Cola paired up to create a series of yo-yos.

Continually improving performance helped generate renewed interest in yo-yos once again in the 1990s. Tom Kuhn introduced the SB-2 yo-yo that had an aluminum transaxle, making it the first successful ball-bearing yo-yo. The SB, or Silver Bullet was a high-performance yo-yo with a longer spin time and better return. The improvements that Kuhn contributed to the yo-yo earned him the very first Donald F. Duncan Family Award for Industry Excellence in 1998. By the mid-1990s the yo-yo had become especially popular in Australia, Britain and Japan. In 1997 Duncan made a licensing agreement with the Coca-Cola Company to produce 18 designs featuring their logo. In 1999 the Hardcore Yo-Yo line was introduced and in 2001 Duncan released the Freehand model yo-yo.

In 2002 Duncan bought out their biggest competition and became the largest manufacturer of yo-yos worldwide. They have continued to add numerous models to their yo-yo lineup, fueling the craze as yo-yo competitions, both amateur and professional, continue around the world today.

Last updated: May 12, 2009
Filed under: Classic Toys Tagged with: Classic Toys