When Was -
The Yo-Yo Invented?

By Mike McLeod

Consider the humble yo-yo. It’s just a toy, a plaything. But this inconsequential kid’s pastime actually dates from antiquity.

No one knows the exact origins of the yo-yo, but some believe it was invented in China. No one really has any evidence of that; however, there is hard evidence that the ancient Greeks invented and played with yo-yos. In the National Museum of Athens resides an urn with a picture depicting a child dangling a yo-yo by the string. (Can’t tell from the urn if the Greeks knew how to “walk the dog” or “rock the cradle.”) In addition, the museum has an example of a terra cotta yo-yo—which is a stroke of marketing genius! A toy that is just made to be broken. Greek mothers must have been out buying new terra cotta yo-yos every day.

Actually, Greek children had wooden and metal yo-yos, too. So why the terra cotta version? As a rite of passage, children offered their toys to a chosen god when they came of age, so the terra cotta yo-yos may have been offerings to the gods. Image that—the humble yo-yo, an offering to a god.

Yo-yos were played with by the Romans, Indians (of India and possibly the Mayans), Egyptians, English, Scots, Filipinos, French (including Napoleon’s armies and King Louis XVII*) and probably many others. The first hard copy record of the yo-yo in the United States was a patent issued in 1866 to James L. Haven and Charles Hittrick of Cincinnati for an improved yo-yo with added weight.

The yo-yo was first mass produced and marketed in the U.S. by Pedro Flores, an American of Filipino ancestry. He eventually built factories that reported made 300,000 yo-yos per day. The humble yo-yo had made it to the big time.

Enter Donald Duncan, Sr., entrepreneur extraordinaire. After seeing a crowd gather to watch a demonstration of yo-yo tricks, he eventually went to work for Pedro Flores. A couple of years later, Duncan purchased the company $250,000 in the early 1930s.

The toy that was first patented in 1866 under the name whirlygig, Duncan patented it in 1932 as the yo-yo, the name Flores had originally christened it. Duncan took his product on the road and had youthful experts showing kids across America how to do yo-yo tricks. By 1946, the Duncan Company was making millions of yo-yos per year, and in 1962, he sold more yo-yos (45 million) than there were kids in America.

Today, the name Duncan Yo-Yos is owned by Flambeau Plastics. But because the Supreme Court ruled in a lawsuit that the term yo-yo is now generic, any manufacturer can use that name.

So the humble yo-yo, with its ancient Greek or possibly Chinese beginning, has traveled the world, amazed the armies of Napoleon and visited the Supreme Court. Kind of gives you more respect for this little toy on a string, doesn’t it?


*A 1789 painting shows King Louis XVII of France as a child playing with a yo-yo. He died in 1795 at the age of 10 from tuberculosis.

Tommy Smothers was a
true follow of “Yo,” as he
termed it, and showed his
skills here in 1988.

Several companies jumped
on the yo-yo bandwagon. In
this 1954 promotional photo, Cheerios Demonstrator Barney Ryan wows some yo-yo fans.

Painting on a Greek urn of
a boy and his yo-yo.

Photos, courtesy of owner
David Hall and www.yoyomuseum.com.

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