The yo-yo in its simplest form is an object consisting of an axle connected to two disks, and a length of twine looped around the axle, similar to a slender spool. It is played by holding the free end of the string (usually by inserting one finger in a slip knot) allowing gravity or the force of a throw to spin the yo-yo and unwind the string (similar to how a pullstring works), then allowing the yo-yo to wind itself back to one's hand, exploiting its spin (and the associated rotational energy). This is often called "yo-yoing".
It is believed that the yo-yo most likely originated in China. The first historical mention of the yo-yo, however, was from Greece in the year 500 B.C. These ancient toys were made out of wood, metal, or painted terra cotta disks and called just that, a disc. It was customary, when a child turned of age, to offer toys of their youth to certain gods. Due to the fragile nature of the material, it is presumed that the disks made of terra cotta (clay) were used for this purpose rather than for actual play.Even in ancient Egyptian temples, drawings of objects have been seen in the shape of yo-yos.
Historical records indicate that 16th century hunters in the Philippines hid up in trees and used a rock tied to a long cord, up to 20 feet in length, to throw at wild animals beneath them. The weapon was able to be pulled up and thrown back down for multiple attempts at the prey. This gave rise to the widespread idea that the practice was the true forerunner of the yo-yo, but this is a stretch of imagination and has no real basis in fact. It is extremely likely, however, that the yo-yo did travel from China not only to Greece, but also to the Philippines, where the yo-yo is known to have been a popular toy for children over a very long period of time.
The next historically dated mention of the yo-yo is a box from India made in the year 1765. This miniature box was hand-painted with the picture of a girl in a red dress playing with her yo-yo. Within the next 25 years, the yo-yo traveled from the Orient to Europe, specifically to the aristocracy (upper class) of Scotland and France and on to England. As it traveled, it became known by a variety of names.
In France, a painting dated to 1789 shows the 4 year-old, future King Louis XVII holding his l'emigrette. It was during this time of the French Revolution and the 'Reign of Terror', that many of the French aristocracy were forced to flee to Paris, Germany and across other borders when their style of life was threatened by the peasant uprisings, taking their popular yo-yos made of glass and ivory with them. L'emigrette is a French term meaning to 'leave the country.' Another nickname for the yo-yo at this time was Coblenz, which was a city to which many French fled. These names reflect an important historical connection between the toy and the French Revolution.
The yo-yo's value as a stress reliever is also seen through history. While being a fashionable toy for the French nobility, those less fortunate are said to have played with their emigrettes to reduce the understandable tension of their one-way trip to the guillotine. Dating through the 1780's, there are drawings of General Lafayette and others with their troops flinging their yo-yos. The yo-yo arrived in Paris in 1791 as it spread through France and was called the 'joujou de Normandie.' Some believe that this term may reflect possible roots for the modern American name of "yo-yo". High interest in the toy continued as evidenced by the famous French playwright, Beaumarchais, in his treatment of 'The Marriage of Figaro' in 1792. There is a scene where the nervous Figaro enters and conveys his tension, not by the conventional wringing of his hands, but playing with his emigrette! When asked what the emigrette is good for, Figaro responds: "It's a noble toy, which dispels the fatigue of thinking."
Even on June 18, 1815, at the famous Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon and his army are known to have been seen relaxing with their yo-yos before battle.
The yo-yo craze traveled throughout Europe to England by way of Scotland and France. The English used the French word bandalore, the term quiz, and the word incroyable which means 'a French dandy', to identify the toy. In 1791, a print was circulated of the Prince of Wales, future George IV, whirling his bandalore. Because of the toy's popularity as well as the prince's power to sell, the toy also became known as the Prince of Wales' toy and soon became a toy that any person of fashion had to own. The toy's ongoing popularity in England is shown as late as 1862 when an illustration appeared showing two young lads terrifying an older woman with their quizzes.
The first recorded reference to any type of yo-yo in the US was in 1866 when two men from Ohio received a patent for an invention called 'an improved bandalore', in that it was rim weighted. One year later, a German immigrant named Charles Kirchof patented and manufactured the return wheel. From then until 1911, although various patents were awarded in the United States related to the yo-yo, nothing notable occurred. In 1916, the Scientific American Supplement published an article titled 'Filipino Toys' which showed it and named it a yo-yo. This was explained by some as the Filipino word for 'come-come' or 'to return.' Significant events were soon to happen in the United States.
Whether the yo-yo was a Chinese, Greek or Filipino invention or some combination is difficult to prove. By the same token, it is also difficult to say with certainty whether the toy spread from country to country or whether the same basic pattern for the toy appeared in completely different parts of the world for no obvious reason. We do know that its use as a toy around the world and throughout history is unmatched. And, although the yo-yo has gone through periods of hibernation in its trek through the ages, its popularity, just like the toy itself, always comes back.
Famous Yo Yo brands: Duncan, Lumar (by Marx), Russel, Ori-O, Roy Rogers, Royal Tops
What's it worth? Take a look at this Yo Yo price guide: sold listings for a value indication.