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The yo-yo is a toy consisting of two equally-sized discs of plastic, wood, or metal, connected with an axle, around which a string is wound. There is a slip knot at the free end of the string, and, on a properly strung yo-yo, an uncut loop around the axle end which allows it to spin freely, or "sleep" upon reaching the string's end.

It is played by tying the string's free end around the middle finger, grasping the yo-yo, and then throwing it with a smooth motion. As the axle spins within the loop, a gyroscopic effect occurs, permitting time to perform a number of movements. By flicking the wrist, the yo-yo can be made to return to the player's hand, with the cord again completely wound into the groove. Any movement, or combination of movements, which result in the return of the yo-yo to the player's hand in this fashion is considered a trick.

Yo-yoing is a popular pastime around the world. Although generally associated with children, it is not uncommon for people who gain a level of proficiency at the sport in youth to continue playing into adulthood.

History Of The Yo-Yo

Contrary to popular myth, there is no evidence that the yo-yo is derived from, nor even existed in any form intended for use as a weapon. While the impact generated by a yo-yo could indeed be rendered deadly with the addition of sharpened edges, the difficulty of safely retrieving it would render such a device somewhat impractical. This rumor likely originated in the Philippines, where hunters in the 16th century used sharp rocks with strings attached to kill prey from trees. The development of the modern yo-yo began in the Philippines at around this time, which is probably the source of the confusion.

Ancient Origins

National Museum, AthensThe yo-yo is a truly ancient form of amusement with as many names as cultures which have assimilated it. Archaeologically, it is the second oldest toy known (after dolls). Although it is thought to have originated in China, evidence of yo-yo-like toys first appears in the historical record around 500 B.C. in ancient Greece. As shown at right, a vase depicting playA, as well as a specimenB, are on display in the National Museum of Athens.

The toy is likely to have spread throughout Asia and Europe via trade routes, and is known to have enjoyed periods of popularity in Scotland, England, India, and even Egypt. The emigrette gained particular notariety in the western world during the French revolution; it was seen as a welcome source of relief from stress, likely epidemic during that period of French history.

Yo-yos would incubate for a time in the South China Sea near their supposed point of origin before leaping across the Pacific and exploding commercially in the New World to become an international phenomenon.

The Yo-Yo In Modern Times

As mentioned previously, the modern incarnation of the device was refined in the Philippines, where tradition maintains that use of the folk toy dates back at least a number of centuries. The name yo-yo is derived from Tagalog and translates as "come-come". The term was first published in a dictionary of Filipino words printed in 1860. The principal distinction between the Filipino design and previous, more primitive "back-and-forth" models is in the way the yo-yo is strung. One continuous piece of string, double the desired length, is twisted around itself to produce a loop at one end (as shown at left) which is fitted around the axle. Also termed a looped slip-string, this seemingly minor modification allows for a far greater variety and sophistication of motion, thanks to increased stability and suspension of movement during free spin. It is, without a doubt, the most important development in the evolution of the yo-yo.

The first United States patent on the toy was issued to James L. Haven and Charles Hettrich in 1866 ( U.S. Patent 59,745 ) under the name whirligig, however, the yo-yo would remain in relative anonymity until 1928 when a Filipino American named Pedro Flores opened the Yo-Yo Manufacturing Company in Santa Barbara, California. The business started with a dozen handmade toys; by November of 1929, Flores was operating two additional factories in Los Angeles and Hollywood, which altogether employed 600 workers and produced 300,000 units daily. Shortly thereafter (ca. 1930), an entrepreneur named Donald Duncan recognized the potential of this new fad and purchased the Flores Yo-yo Corporation and all its assets, including the Flores name, which was transferred to the new company in 1932. He is reputed to have paid more than $250,000, a fortune by depression era standards. It turned out to be a sound investment, making many, many times this amount in the years to follow.

Commercial Success

A chart of the yo-yo's commercial history would mimic the path of the toy itself, finding peaks and lows many times over the course of the 20th century. Declining sales after the second World War prompted Duncan to launch a comeback campaign for his trademarked "Yo-Yo" in 1962 with a series of television advertisements. The media blitz met with unprecedented success, thanks in great part to the introduction of the Duncan Butterfly, which was effectively an inverse version of the classic Imperial design that made landing the yo-yo on its string (in tricks such as "trapeze") much more accessible to the beginner. This success would be short-lived, however, and in a landmark intellectual property case in 1965, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the Royal Tops Company, determining that Yo-Yo had become a part of common speech and that Duncan no longer had exclusive rights to the term. As a result of the expenses incurred by this legal battle as well as other financial pressures, the Duncan family sold the company name and associated trademarks in 1968 to Flambeau Plastics, who had manufactured Duncan's plastic models since 1955. They continue to run the company today.

Yo-Yos Today And In The Future

Yo-yo competitions are held at the world level, and in the United States, at the national and regional levels. In freestyle yo-yo competitions, players perform a routine to their choice of music in front of a panel of judges. Currently there are five freestyle divisions:

  • 1A The player uses a long spinning yo-yo to perform tricks that typically require manipulation of the string.
  • 2A The player uses two yo-yo's simultaneously to perform reciprocating or looping maneuvers. This tends to be the most visually entertaining style with some players incorporating acrobatics into their routines.
  • 3A The player uses two long spinning yo-yos and performs tricks with both simultaneously.
  • 4A The player uses an offstring yo-yo, often releasing the yo-yo into the air and attempting to catch it on the string.
  • 5A The player uses a yo-yo with a counterweight on the other end of the string rather than having it attached to a finger.

Competitors usually bring a number of yo-yos to the performance stage with them to allow for mid-routine replacements in the case of tangling (common with spinning tricks) or breakage (common with looping and offstring tricks).

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