The very first depiction of a yo-yo anywhere in the world is found on an ancient Greek vase from the 5th century BC, where a boy can be seen playing with the timeless toy.
The yo-yo is the second-oldest known toy — after dolls, of course — according to historians. Its origins are placed in China, after a toy known as the diabolo. From China, the yo-yo traveled to ancient Greece and the Philippines. Through time, it became popular all over the world.
The yo-yo in ancient Greece
Yo-yos in those days were made of wood, terracotta, metal or clay. It is believed that in ancient Greek society the toy was used as an offering to the gods. Some also believe that it was used as a coming-of-age ritual for boys.
These ancient toys were often decorated with pictures of Greek gods. As children began to enter adulthood in antiquity, it became a tradition for them to place their yo-yos on the family altar to pay homage as a rite of passage.
The vase depicting the boy playing with the toy, dating back to 440 BC, is exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, along with fragments of a small clay disc, which ere once part of the popular toy.
There are images depicting the device in ancient Egypt as well, an indication that, indeed, the yo-yo was an fun toy for young and old.
It is believed that the name yo-yo has its origins in the Philippines. The word itself means “come-come” or “to return” in Filipino, describing the basic trait of the device. Filipino warriors also used it as a deadly weapon for hunting or battle, with the disc replaced by a larger, sharp stone.
The history of the beloved toy
From Asia, the yo-yo traveled to Europe, when at the end of the 18th century it became a favorite pastime for the aristocracy. The toy was called different names, such as “L’emigrette,” “Bandalore,” and “joujou de Normandie.” Some would argue that the French word for a toy ― joujou ― was adopted into other western cultures as the name for the device.
From France, the yo-yo traveled to England and almost a century later to the New World. The first yo-yo was patented in modern times in the year 1866 in Cincinnati, Ohio by James L. Haven and Charles Hettrich.
In 1928, a Filipino migrant named Pedro Flores opened the first yo-yo manufacturing shop in California — and the rest is toy history.
The toy remained one of the most popular in the US until the Second World War. During this turbulent wartime period, yo-yo sales fell dramatically.
Toy manufacturers decided to revitalize the yo-yo in the 1960s, and released now iconic advertisements for the toy on television at that the time.