The Hula Hoop is the standard by which all fads are measured. Somewhere inside that plastic ring lay the key to the hearts of a generation, and the Hula Hoop won those hearts like no toy before or since.
Fads had certainly existed before – not three years earlier, Davy Crockett coonskin caps covered the heads of almost every boy on the playground – but the Hula Hoop (developed in 1957 by Wham-O) was a new phenomenon.
It wasn’t just for boys, it wasn’t just for girls? it wasn’t even just for kids. Everyone wanted one, and nearly everyone got one.
Hula Hoop-type toys had been around for years before 1957 – centuries, in fact. Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman societies had similar hoops, and several other cultures had their own variations.
The direct inspiration actually came from Australia, where a friend of Wham-O founders Arthur “Spud” Melin and Richard Knerr spotted groups of schoolchildren exercising with bamboo rings, twirling them around their waists with constant hip gyrations.
Melin and Knerr developed their own version out of polyurethane tubing, dubbed it ‘Hula Hoop’ (after the hula-dance-like waist movements needed to keep it spinning), and set out to sell the things.
Wham-O staged publicity events on playgrounds in Southern California, teaching kids how to twirl the hoops and giving out free Hula Hoops to build the buzz.
The craze spread like wild-fire and Wham-O sold 25 million Hula Hoops in four months at the height of the toy’s popularity.
Somewhat unprepared for the international success of their invention, the Wham-O duo found themselves unable to police their patent, and soon ‘Spin-a-Hoop’, ‘Hoop-D-Do’ and some 40 other American varieties were competing for their share of international sales of between 60 million and 100 million hoops in 1958.
Several contests sprang up: How many hoops can you twirl? How long can you keep them spinning? and so on. Skilled Hoopers could spin the rings not only around the waist, but on the arms and wrists, the legs and feet, and even the neck and head.
Whether for PE, exercise or pure recreation, kids can still be found twisting the hoops that link them to what may be the biggest toy fad this planet has ever seen.