A Rich History of a Simple Toy Called the Yo-Yo
From Ancient Greece to the French Revolution to a NASA Space Mission –
A Rich History of a Simple Toy Called the Yo-Yo
One summer day, 33 years ago, I picked up my first yo-yo and learned my very first yo-yo tricks. At the time, I was too young to know that what I held in my hand was not just a toy, it was one of the oldest toys in history. As the days and years passed, I joined the ranks of a global subculture that found themselves fascinated by a simple toy. A toy that has been dated back as far as 440 BC.
It is believed that the yo-yo originated from one of three countries: China, the Philippines and Greece. However, the oldest historical mentions and artifacts that have been found are from Greece. These artifacts included a painting from 440 BC that shows a boy playing with a yo-yo and writings that describe them as discs made from wood, terra cotta and metal. The terra cotta discs were likely used as an offering to the gods when a child became of age. Likewise, similar drawings have also been found in Egyptian temples. (Source: Museum of Yo-Yo History www.yoyomuseum.com)
Like many things in history, it is believed that people carried the yo-yo with them to other parts of the world including India and France in the 1700s. A picture of King Louis XVII shows him playing with a yo-yo as a child. Historical documents reveal that yo-yo was a popular past-time during the French Revolution. This tradition carried on to the 1800’s in which paintings show Napoleon throwing a yo-yo prior to entering the battle of Waterloo. From there the yo-yo continued its journey around the world becoming a pastime in England and then finally reaching America and eventually into space. Seriously, in 1985 the astronauts of the Space Shuttle Discovery, brought it with them on their mission! (Check out the YouTube video of this mission here: (https://youtu.be/mxzR7QW7BfM)(Source: Museum of Yo-Yo History www.yoyomuseum.com)
As one of the few multi-generational toys, to truly appreciate history it is important to learn about the subculture as much as the cool historical facts. It is a subculture that came about because of the keen foresight by the American businessman, Donald F. Duncan.
One day in 1928, Donald Duncan found himself standing on a street in San Francisco curiously watching a man named Pedro Flores entertaining kids with a round object that was tied to the end of a string. The entrepreneurial spirit in Mr. Duncan helped him to immediately see the marketability of the new toy. A fuse was lit that helped yo-yoing to quickly become one of the most popular toys in history.
(President Richard Nixon Yo-Yoing 1974) (1935 Duncan Contest Winners)
(Photos from Museum of Yo-Yo History – www.yoyomuseum.com)
Soon after he set his marketing idea in motion when he approached William Randolph Hearst--owner of the nation's largest newspaper chain. Duncan’s idea to launch the yo-yo was to feature ads in newspapers around the country of yo-yo contests. He proposed that if Mr. Hearst gave him free ad space, he could increase the circulation of his newspapers through advertisements of his yo-yo contests. To enter the contest, kids needed to sell 2-3 subscriptions to the newspaper. Hearst, skeptical at the time, started with his Chicago paper and in six weeks they sold 50,000 new subscriptions. Since it was so successful, Mr. Hearst gave Donald Duncan free ad space in all his papers around the country. At that point Mr. Duncan created teams of professional yo-yo demonstrators and sent them from city to city and school yard to school yard. Entertaining kids and promoting local yo-yo contests, these demonstrators and events made Dun(1980’s Roller Skating Yo-Yo Players)can a household name.
From schoolyard demonstrators selling hand-carved wooden yo-yos to modern champions touring the globe, the way we play is always changing, but the reasons we play have not. "Yo-yos are not only fun and something to pass the time with, they are a tool of expressionism that fuels everyone’s creativity and inner child. It is a sport that you can play individually or as a team. The best part is that it literally fits in your pocket! It is for this reason and from Donald Duncan creating and sending special yo-yo demonstrators around the county that this subculture came to be.
My own love for yo-yo play began when I watched a professional demonstrator at a summer youth camp in Vermont. Each weekend, this man who had been playing with a yo-yo for 40 years put on a yo-yo show. He then taught the kids a few tricks like walk the dog and rock the baby. My very first yo-yo was a Duncan and like most kids, I played with it every day. As the years went by, I soon became immersed in this unusual subculture with a language of its own. From yo-yo trick names to technical terms and secrets of fine tuning a yo-yo, I absorbed it all. From waxing, sanding, and string making to finding the ideal weighted yo-yo and the perfect combination of friction and string material, these tools of the trade became my world.
Like my teacher and all those before me, I was hired to be a professional demonstrator.
I soon began traveling to schools and various family-type of venues showing my awe-inspiring feats with a yo-yo. From encouraging kids to compete in local yo-yo contests to teaching as many kids as I could, this became my life. As the years passed, I watched kids and adults of all ages also take to this as either a hobby or as a sport. The yo-yo is a universal toy that brings people together. No matter where they are from, what language they speak, what they do for work or what type of personality they have. It provided hours of fun, laughter and memories that truly are passed down from one generation to the next.
If you want to learn more, I encourage you to watch our “Heritage: The Duncan Yo-Yo Story” on your YouTube channel. You can also read about the historical origins and view a collection of yo-yo’s at www.yoyomuseum.com. Plus, you can read about how yo-yo’s have evolved from simple wood versions to high-tech roller bearing and precision crafted versions. If you want to read more about my own story of traveling the world as a yo-yo champion, please follow me on social media at the links below and watch for my future blog posts!