It is believed that the yo-yo most likely originated in
China. The first historical mention of the yo-yo, however, was from Greece in the year 500
B.C. These ancient toys were made out of wood, metal, or painted terra cotta disks and
called just that, a disc. It was customary, when a child turned of age, to offer toys of
their youth to certain gods. Due to the fragile nature of the material, it is presumed
that the disks made of terra cotta (clay) were used for this purpose rather than for
actual play. A vase painting from this time period shows a Greek youth playing with a
yo-yo. Such vases, as well as an actual terra cotta disk can be found in the National
Museum of Athens, Greece.
Even in ancient Egyptian temples, drawings of objects have
been seen in the shape of yo-yos. Historical records indicate that 16th century hunters in
the Philippines hid up in trees and used a rock tied to a long cord, up to 20 feet in
length, to throw at wild animals beneath them. The weapon was able to be pulled up and
thrown back down for multiple attempts at the prey. This gave rise to the widespread idea
that the practice was the true forerunner of the yo-yo, but this is a stretch of
imagination and has no real basis in fact. It is extremely likely, however, that the yo-yo
did travel from China not only to Greece, but also to the Philippines, where the yo-yo is
known to have been a popular toy for children over a very long period of time.
The next historically dated mention of the yo-yo is a box
from India made in the year 1765. This miniature box was hand-painted with the picture of
a girl in a red dress playing with her yo-yo. Within the next 25 years, the yo-yo traveled
from the Orient to Europe, specifically to the aristocracy (upper class) of Scotland and
France and on to England. As it traveled, it became known by a variety of names.
In France, a painting dated to 1789 shows the 4 year-old,
future King Louis XVII holding his lemigrette. It was during this time of the French
Revolution and the "Reign of Terror," that many of the French aristocracy were
forced to flee to Paris, Germany and across other borders when their style of life was
threatened by the peasant uprisings, taking their popular yo-yos made of glass and ivory
with them. Lemigrette is a French term meaning to leave the country.
Another nickname for the yo-yo at this time was de Coblenz, which was a city to which many
French fled. These names reflect an important historical connection between the toy and
the French Revolution.
The yo-yos value as a stress reliever is also seen
through history. While being a fashionable toy for the French nobility, those less
fortunate are said to have played with their emigrettes to reduce the understandable
tension of their one-way trip to the guillotine. Dating through the 1780s, there are
drawings of General Lafayette and others with their troops flinging their yo-yos. The
yo-yo arrived in Paris in 1791 as it spread through France and was called the
"joujou de Normandie." Some believe that this term may reflect possible roots
for the modern American name of "yo-yo." High interest in the toy continued as
evidenced by the famous French playwright, Beaumarchais, in his treatment of "The
Marriage of Figaro" in 1792. There is a scene where the nervous Figaro enters and
conveys his tension, not by the conventional wringing of his hands, but playing with his
emigrette! When asked what the emigrette is good for, Figaro responds, "It is a noble
toy, which dispels the fatigue of thinking." Even on June 18, 1815, at the famous
Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon and his army are known to have been seen relaxing with their
yo-yos before battle. The yo-yo craze traveled throughout Europe to England by way of
Scotland and France. The English used the French word bandalore, the term quiz, and the
word incroyable which means a French dandy, to identify the toy. In 1791, a
print was circulated of the Prince of Wales, future George IV, whirling his bandalore.
Because of the toys popularity as well as the princes power to sell, the toy
also became known as the Prince of Wales toy and soon became a toy that any person
of fashion had to own. The toys ongoing popularity in England is shown as late as
1862 when an illustration appeared showing two young lads terrifying an older woman with
The first recorded reference to any type of yo-yo in the
United States was in 1866 when two men from Ohio received a patent for an invention called
"an improved bandalore," in that it was rim weighted. One year later, a German
immigrant named Charles Kirchof patented and manufactured the return wheel. From then
until 1911, although various patents were awarded in the United States related to the
yo-yo, nothing notable occurred. In 1916, the Scientific American Supplement published an
article titled "Filipino Toys" which showed it and named it a yo-yo. This was
explained by some as the Filipino word for "come-come" or "to return."
Significant events were soon to happen in the United States.
Meanwhile, back in the Philippines, the natives were
becoming experts at making and using the toy. They became excellent wood carvers of the
yo-yo and playing with a yo-yo, beginning early in childhood, became a national pastime.
Not surprisingly, it was from here that the yo-yo as we know it today was truly introduced
into the United States. In the 1920s, a man named Pedro Flores brought the first Filipino
yo-yo to the U.S. and in 1928, began a yo-yo company by the same name in California.
These yo-yos were hand-carved from a single piece of wood.
The yo-yo was unique because it was the first yo-yo that did not have the string tied to
the axle. Instead, the string was looped around the axle, allowing the yo-yo to spin or
"sleep" at the end of the string. This concept is at the heart of yo-yoing
today. Rather than being able to only go up and down, the yo-yo was now capable of doing
an infinite number of tricks.
In 1928 or 1929, a businessman named Donald F. Duncan Sr.
saw his first Flores yo-yo while he was in San Francisco. He saw the potential of the toy
as he witnessed the crowd that Pedro was able to draw by doing a few tricks. He purchased
not only the idea of the yo-yo, but the Pedro Flores company itself. And, as they say,
"the rest is history." Donald Duncan was an excellent businessman. He developed
advertising campaigns and had demonstrators working for him in the U.S., as well as
Western Europe. "Duncan Yo-Yo Professionals" traveled throughout the United
States teaching and demonstrating yo-yo tricks and conducting contests in an effort to
promote sales. Competition grew as other companies began to see the toys potential.
In 1932, in an effort to protect his interest, Duncan filed for and was assigned a
trademark for the word "yo-yo." Not able to use the term "yo-yo,"
competitors were forced to use terms like "come-back", "return",
"returning top", "whirl-a-gig", and "twirler" for their
versions of the toy.
In 1946, the Duncan Company moved to Luck, Wisconsin, which
quickly became known as the "Yo-Yo Capital of the World" producing 3,600 yo-yos
per hour. They produced the original maple wooden yo-yos using 1,000,000 board feet per
year. In 1960, plastic yo-yos that we still see today began to be manufactured. Sales grew
and grew. By 1962, the Duncan Company alone sold a record 45 million yo-yos in a country
with only 40 million kids, and still could not keep up with the demand. High television
advertising expenses and excessive expenses in overtime wages and materials to keep up
with the demand hurt profits. There was also the continual legal expense in trying to hold
onto the trademarked word "yo-yo." Competitors fought hard to use it in
describing their products. Finally, in 1965, the Federal Court of Appeals ruled that
Duncans trademark for the word "yo-yo" was no good. The term yo-yo had
become so widespread that it was now a permanent part of the language and it no longer
only described the toy. It, in fact, WAS the toy.
National Yo-Yo Museum
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Thank you to the American YO-YO Association Newsletter