From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The yoyo was broadcast on the 8th January 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
The yoyo might seem like a blast from the past to some, given that it was the plaything that almost everyone had in the 1960s. In today’s high tech world, the idea of wrapping a fat little disc in a string and then making the disc roll up and down it, seems rather quaint. And yet the yoyo has an exceptional history, taking us back as far as ancient times. There’s even a picture of a child using a yoyo painted on the side of a Greek vase some two and a half thousand years ago, and toy historians think it probably originated in China well before that.
The origin of its name is equally surprising. Some say it comes from the French for plaything – joujou. Others trace it back to the Philippine islands of the 16th century, where a similar-sounding word described a disc with a cord wrapped around it that was used to ambush unsuspecting animals, rather like having a stone on a string. The French used the term emigrette to describe a sphere of glass or ivory attached to a string that was intended as a stress reliever. Nothing was better ‘to dispel the fatigue of thinking’ according to a character in a play of the 1790s. The idea spread to Britain where the Prince of Wales promoted its popularity although it was now known as a bandalore.
It was popular elsewhere, too, and when an American journal wrote an article in 1916 on Filipino toys, they named it a yoyo. In the 1920s, a Filipino called Pedro Flores set up a company in California that was soon selling 300,000 of them a year. He changed the design so that the cord was now looped around a spindle, making it spin more easily. The Duncan company bought him out and by 1946, its manufacturing base in Luck, Wisconsin was churning out over 3500 yoyos an hour. The town itself became known as the Yoyo Capital of the world, an uncontested title, one imagines, but demonstrating the toy’s hold on the nation. By 1962 the company had sold 45 million yoyos and yet, just a few years later, it went bankrupt when they lost the patent. The world was now flooded by cheap yoyos, mostly made in plastic, as the hunger for them continued.
Most toys enjoy a craze but the yoyo’s keeps going. It’s been refined further, with ball-bearings making it spin yet faster. One was taken into space in 1985 to test in zero gravity. It’s even been discussed as a potential Olympic sport. That something so apparently simple has captivated the world for so long is at once perplexing and heartening. Its cheapness makes it available for all. And it can be played with in the most basic way or as part of an astounding display of yoyo mastery. A blast from the past it may be to some, but it remains an object to which all toys can aspire, the past, present and future all wrapped up in one glorious little design.