Monday, March 27, 2017

Up and Down and Around the World

QUESTION: I used to love playing with yo-yos as a kid. In fact, I was quite good at it. Recently, while rummaging through some boxes in my attic, I came across my favorite yo-yos. At the time in the late 1950s, I thought they had just been invented, but saw a kid playing with one in a period drama on Netflix. Can you tell me when and how these neat little toys came to be? Are they collectible today?

ANSWER:  A yo-yo in its simplest form is a toy consisting of an axle connected to two disks, similar to a slender spool, with a length of string looped around the axle. To play with it, a person creates a slip knot into which he or she inserts one finger, allowing gravity or the force of a throw to spin the yo-yo and unwind the string, then allowing the yo-yo to wind itself back to the hand. This process is known as  "yo-yoing" and first became popular in the 1920s. But the yo-yo goes back a lot further in history.

Although first recorded on ancient vases from early Greece showing boys playing with thin disks on a string, the invention of the yo-yo probably first occurred in China. The first yo-yos probably consisted of two painted terracotta clay disks, followed by ones made of wood, then metal. But once the yo-yo became commonplace, its popularity spread. By the mid 18th century, its use had spread to India where a handpainted miniature box depicts a young girl playing with a yo-yo. Over the next 25 years, yo-yos made of glass and ivory appeared in all over Europe and the Orient.

During the French Revolution, people used yo-yos to relieve stress—they had to do something while waiting for the next head to fall. They also became fashionable toys, called l'emigrette—a French word that referred to leaving the country---for the nobility. A painting of future King Louis XVII displayed in 1789 depicted the four-year-old palming his l'emigrette. Sketches of soldiers made during the 1780s, including General Lafayette and his troops, show the men tossing their yo-yos. As yo-yo usage gained in popularity throughout France in the late 18th century, the toy became known as the joujou de Normandie, or toy of Normandy, which some believe to be the origin for the modern American name of "yo-yo."

The yo-yo earned the title "Prince of Wales" toy in 1791 when a picture appeared of the future George IV twirling a bandalore as the English called it. Legend says that during the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, Napoleon and his troops used their yo-yos to "unwind" before battle.

But it wasn’t until 1866 that the yo-yo reached the United States after two Ohio men applied for a patent for their invention which they called "an improved bandalore." Their  improvement was a weighted rim.

An article published in the Scientific American Supplement in 1916, entitled “Filipino Toys,” included a picture of what it called a yo-yo, a word some people defined as Filipino for "to return"or "spring."

Pedro Flores, a Filipino immigrant, introduced the Filipino yo-yo to the United States in the 1920s. He established the Yo-yo Manufacturing Company in Santa Barbara, California in 1928. Flores’ yo-yos had a unique feature. His workers hand-carved his yo-yos from one piece of wood. They were the first such toy that could spin or "sleep" because the string looped around the axle. Players could not only make this forerunner to the modern yo-yo go up and down, but they could also perform endless tricks. Flores began making a dozen handmade toys, but by November 1929, he had two additional factories in operation, one in Los Angeles and one in Hollywood, which together employed 600 workers and produced 300,000 units daily.

One day, Donald F. Duncan Sr., an American businessman, watched Flores perform his tricks in San Francisco. Eyeing the large group of people watching Flores' demonstration, Duncan realized the possibilities of this toy. In1929, he bought the rights to Flores’ yo-yo, patented the name "yo-yo," and promoted it in the United States. Duncan hired 42 demonstrators— one of whom was Pedro Flores—to teach and demonstrate yo-yo feats and hold contests as a means of increasing sales throughout the country and in Western Europe.

In 1946, Duncan relocated his company in Luck, Wisconsin. The company produced  3,600 yo-yos each hour. Four years later, Duncan introduced the Electric Lighted yo-yo, marking the first such toy to light up. During the late 1950s, Duncan released the Butterfly model yo-yo, a high-tech design that made it much easier to land on the string while executing complex tricks. Plastic yo-yos soon followed in 1960. In 1962, the company sold a record 45 million yo-yos.

An expensive lawsuit to protect the yo-yo trademark from competitors forced the Duncan family out of businesses in Nov. 1965. Flamboyant Products, manufacturer of Duncan’s plastic models, bought the company and still owns it today. The yo-yo’s popularity hasn’t waned.

The yo-yo holds the honor of being the first toy in space when astronauts put it through its paces in 1985 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. They discovered that gravity is needed to play with a yo-yo.

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