Hula Hoop: When Wham-O Pulled Off The All-Time Toy Fad In 1958
Dick Clark watches a guest demonstrate the most popular toy in America on American Bandstand in 1958. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)
In July 1958, the hula hoop became the biggest fad the world had ever seen. Manufacturer Wham-O used the still relatively new medium of TV to create a sensation; in addition to advertising, Wham-O was able to get its product onto shows as a cultural phenomenon. Today, we're familiar with product placement and PR tactics, but in 1958 Wham-O's moves were groundbreaking. And the result was a fad that became the classic fad of all fads -- from the Pet Rock to Tickle Me Elmo, every sudden must-have toy or gimmick follows the swirling, momentum-gaining pattern established by the hula hoop.
Wham-O got its start in 1948, when Arthur Melin and Richard Knerr founded a company to sell a slingshot used in hunting. They named the company after the sound the slingshot supposedly made. They expanded their products when they started selling sporting goods, boomerangs, and toys. The first toy was the plastic Frisbee, which they started selling in 1957. In 1958, they began making Hula Hoops.
Hoops Have A Lengthy History
Wham-O was not the first to produce the hoops. Nor were these modern hoops the first to be used. According to author Charles Panati, wooden and metal hoops were used in 14th century England, mainly by doctors to treat patients who were suffering from a variety of ailments. They were part of children's toys for a while too, although not in the same ways that the Hula Hoop was used. Children in Australia had used a wooden hoop until Toltoys, an Australian company, began producing them using plastic in order to meet production demand. Joan Anderson first discovered the toy while visiting family in Australia and had one shipped home to her in America. She took it to Wham-O to show Melin and Kneer, who were inspired by this and began producing hoops of their own. Wham-O derived the name of their hoop from the Hawaiian dance, which uses similar movements. Hawaii was soon to become a U.S. state, and Americans were fascinated by island culture -- it was almost too perfect.
Wham-O Staged A Grassroots Trend And Courted Free Publicity
Wha-O was not successful initially, so the company started to take Hula Hoops to playgrounds, first demonstrating them and then allowing the children to try them out. In a major department store, Filenes, a majorette would demonstrate the hoop for hours, and, of course, children wanted to try. Company executives even used them as carry-ons during their flights in hopes that fellow travelers would ask about the hoops. There were contests to see who could hoop the longest in clubs; there were also more unusual contests, such as contests to see who could hula the most hoops at once. These contests provided free publicity for the toy. People were spinning them on body parts other than the hips, including the neck and the legs just adding to the excitement. Their marketing campaign also relied significantly on television. Melin and his wife, Suzy, would simply show up and demonstrate the Hula Hoop and would ask to be on the show. Because this was 1958, the studios were open to this sort of thing. Their greatest success came after their appearance on the Dinah Shore show, when sales skyrocketed. The Hula Hoop’s success was in part because it was popular not only among children, but also with adults.
Wham-O Made The Hula Hoop A Global Phenomenon
As the fad started to fade, it took off in Europe, where similar marketing techniques were used. They also had some unusual marketing. For example, one store offered night delivery for childless adults who were too embarrassed to buy the toy for themselves. In Japan, some stores created the illusion that there was a shortage of Hula Hoops by selling tickets for the toys to be redeemed at a later date. There were, however, countries where the hoops were not so popular, at least not with the government. In Indonesia, they eventually condemned the hoop as “awakening sexuality.”
Pop Singers And McDonald's Promoted The Hula Hoop
An estimated 80 to 100 million Hula Hoops were sold in 1958, making it one of the biggest fads of the time. In fact, it was such a fad that there were songs about it, such as Theresa Brewer’s song, “Hula Hoop” and other companies like McDonalds used it in their own advertising. However, popularity began to dwindle, and unfortunately, Wham-O was unable to get a patent for the hoop when it was originally introduced, so they had a number of competitors. They were, however, able to trademark the name.
Hula Hoop In 1963: It's All Ball Bearings Now
As sales of Hula Hoops plunged, they pulled the toy off the market, reintroducing it in 1965 with an improvement and a patent that they received in 1963: the use of ball bearings to give it the swoosh-swoosh sound. They had a brief surge in popularity before sales again died down, although it has had a resurgence, trending on social media, as people have re-embraced it, as a tool for fitness and as art and a type of meditation.
Tags: A Brief History Of... | Hula Hoop | Remember This?... | Toys Of The 1950s | Wham-O
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