The yo-yo toy, a simple string tied to a weighted disc, has been flung about by kids and adults for over 2500 years. While the true origin is not known for certain, the earliest record goes back to ancient Greece, in 500 BC, where a boy and his yo-yo are pictured on vase.
What I had always thought was the birth of the yo-yo turns out to be merely a footnote along the way, many many years later. In the Philippines, hunters would hide up in the trees, holding a hefty rock tied to a cord. This allowed them to throw the rock at tasty animals walking below, and pull it back up for multiple attempts. But the real yo-yo toy did make it to the Philippines early on, and as I’ll get to in a moment, that became very important in later years.
By 1700 the yo-yo was pretty common across China, India, and that part of the world. Then it began to conquer Europe. First France. In 1789 there is a painting that shows a 4-year-old future king Louis XVIII. It was a rather popular toy among the French nobility during the Revolutionary period. It was a stressful time, and the yo-yo actually served the purpose of a stress reliever. In a French version of the play The Marriage of Figaro, a yo-yo toy is used to convey a characters tension. “It is a noble toy, which dispels the fatigue of thinking.”
Few jobs were more stressful than being in the French army, and there are records of General Lafayette and other officers flicking yo-yos about. Later on, General Napoleon with his troops before the battle of Waterloo were seen with their stringed stress relievers.
Now, it should be said that the yo-yo had never been called a yo-yo at any point along this journey. In France it may have been l’emigrette, or de Coblenz (both references to the Revolution and nobility fleeing from angry citizens). A later term was joujou de Normandie, which may have inspired the modern name. When the toy made it to England they adopted the French word bandalore, or incroyable. They also called it a quiz. After the young royal (future king George IV) was seen playing with it, it was sold to the masses as the Prince of Wales’ toy.
In 1916 it was finally named a yo-yo in a Scientific American article describing toys from the Philippines. The word yo-yo was translated from the Filipino come-come, or to return.
The start of the commercial success of the yo-yo was due to a man from the Philippines, where this toy had become a national pastime, who came to California and started the Pedro Flores company in 1928. He also came up with the bright idea of loosely tying the string around the yo-yo, allowing it to sleep, or stay spinning while the string remains extended. This opened up the door for all the now famous yo-yo tricks that were not previously possible. (unless you consider up-and-down a cool trick)
Within a year, Donald F Duncan Sr. saw Pedro demonstrating his yo-yo in San Fransisco and saw great potential. He bought the company, and the Duncan yo-yo became a part of American history. In 1932, Duncan trademarked the word yo-yo for his exclusive use. By 1946 the company moved to Luck, Wisconsin and was producing 3600 yo-yos per hour. That’s 60 per second!
After much legal expenses, in 1965 Duncan’s trademark on “yo-yo” was taken away, on the grounds that the name had become the common term. That same year, the Duncan company went bankrupt, but the door was wide open for many companies to pick up where they left off. Including the Flambeau Plastics Company who purchased the Duncan brand name to continue making the world’s most famous yo-yo.
As an example of how much the yo-yo became a part of the culture, in 1974 President Richard Nixon appeared on the Grand Ole Opry television show… with a yo-yo. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t his “walking the dog” that got him the nickname Tricky Dick.
P.S. Happy birthday, Chet!