When people think of the yo-yo they often view it as the creation of Donald Duncan. The yo-yo, however, has existed for thousands of years. Ancient Greek artwork displayed the spool-like toy and over the years, the yo-yo has been found in various forms in many cultures.
These early versions were made of wood, metal or terra cot and were often decorated with painting of people or scenes. The two discs were connected by a small rod in the middle and had a piece of string tied to the rod. As it passed from culture to culture, the toy went by many names: “bandalore” and “quiz” in Great Britain, “incroyable”, “l’emigrette” and “coblentz” in France, and “disc” in Greece. In the Philippines, however, it was labeled “yo-yo” which means “comeback.” As well as a toy, the yo-yo had been used for hundreds of years as a weapon, often with blades attached. The attacker would hide in a tree and sling it down to strike an unsuspecting victim walking below.
From the Philippines came Pedro Flores who began manufacturing an improved version of the yo-yo in the late 1920’s. His version used a slip string which accommodated the up and down movement as well as permitting the toy to “spin” suspended at the end of the string (often referred to as “sleeping” or “sticking.”
In 1929, Donald F. Duncan purchased the rights to the toy from Flores and set out to market the yo-yo as America’s favorite toy. Duncan was certainly no stranger to successful marketing a product. Duncan was the inventor of the Eskimo Pie ice cream, the founder of the Good Humor Ice Cream franchise, and the creator of the parking meters among other things. Duncan imported a number of teenagers from the Philippines to demonstrate the toy and numerous tricks and stunts to the American public. His marketing worked and quickly his toy (which he called the “O-Boy Yo-yo Top”) was a bestseller. It sold three million units in Philadelphia alone during a month in 1931.
Unfortunately, World War II emerged and a national rationing effort made material for the toy scarce. After the war, Duncan faced a number of competitors and saw his market share dwindle. In the early 1960’s, however, Duncan’s fortune seemed to change. Along with the standard version (which was called the “Imperial”) Duncan introduced another version called the Butterfly and in 1962, 45 million units were sold followed by 56 million more in 1963. Unfortunately, the costs of producing and marketing the toys exceeded the enormous revenues they brought in and Duncan was forced to declare bankruptcy two years later. The Duncan name and trademark were purchased and the toy has continued to be marketed in anticipation of its next “comeback.”