West Virginia entrepreneur Donald F. Duncan (1892-1971) had never heard of the yo-yo until 1928, when he encountered Pedro Flores on a business trip to California.
Earlier that same decade, Flores had immigrated to America from the Philippines, and initially worked as a bellhop at a Santa Monica hotel. Carving and playing with wooden yo-yos was a traditional pastime in the Philippines, but Flores found that his lunch break yo-yo playing drew a crowd. He promptly started a company to make the toys, calling it the Flores Yo-Yo Company (“yo-yo” means “come-come” in the Tagalog language).
In 1930 Duncan bought out Flores, who went to work for Duncan running promotions. The company teamed up with Hearst Newspapers to promote yo-yo contests. Hearst added a twist, requiring players to sell three newspaper subscriptions if they wished to compete in the contests. A single promotion in Philadelphia sold 3 million yo-yos in 30 days. Duncan introduced the looped slip-string, which allows the yo-yo to sleep – a necessity for advanced tricks.
The company imported a number of teenagers from the Philippines to demonstrate the toy and numerous tricks and stunts to the American public. This marketing worked and quickly the toy (which Duncan called the “O-Boy Yo-yo Top”) became a bestseller. Manufacturing shifted to Baurle Brothers in Chicago. The first ever World Yo-Yo Competition was held in London, in 1932. Harvey Lowe, age 13, won.
Also in 1932 Duncan filed for and was assigned a trademark for the word yo-yo, which the company held until challenged in 1965. In a landmark intellectual property case that year (Donald F. Duncan, Inc. v. Royal Tops Mfg. Co., 343 F.2d 655 (7th Cir. 1965), a federal court of appeals ruled in favor of the Royal Tops Company, asserting that the term had become a part of common speech.
The genuine Duncan yo-yo is a classic toy that has endured for 80 years. With more than 600 million sold, it is probably the most popular toy in history, and has been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.