Hula Hoops, the round hoop toy that is twirled around the waist, arms, legs, and neck, became popular in the late 1950’s when a new plastic version was marketed by California’s Wham-O toy company. The toy could not be patented because “hoop” toys were an ancient invention.
Ancient Hula Hoops
Greeks used “hooping” as a form of exercise and in 1000 AD, Egyptian children played with large hoops made of dried grapevine. The toy was rolled along the ground using a stick or swung around the waist in an attempt to see how many times it could be swung before hitting the ground.
Around 1300, hooping became very popular in Great Britain. Homemade versions of the hoop were especially popular until Government officials began discouraging their use because of many reports of injuries (doctor records from that era confirm hurt backs and heart attacks).
Native Indians used hoops made of reeds to teach arrow shooting accuracy. Several Native American tribes used the hoop in their Native American Hoop Dance events. One to thirty hoops were used in the Native American Hoop Dances as a form of storytelling. The hoops were swung around the body in a very rapid dance. Off body use of the hoops in Native American Hoop Dancing were used to illustrate the story by constructing symbolic forms, such as animals, around their body.
In 1880, British sailors witnesses hula dancing in the Hawaiian Islands. Since the hula dance moves looked similar to hooping, they coined the term “hula hoop”.
The Invention of the Hula Hoop
In 1957, the modern hula hoop was invented. Richard Knerr and Arthur “Spud” Melin were introduced to Australian bamboo “exercise hoops”. Australians used the hoops in school gym classes and the wooden rings were sold in retail stores for home use. Seeing the promise for a successful American toy using this same principle, they set out to manufacture 42 inch plastic hoops for retail sale.
Around this time, Phillips Petroleum invented a new high-density polyethylene plastic they named Marlex. Used to manufacture milk jugs, the lightweight but durable plastic was a perfect fit for the new hula hoop toy. Production of the Hula Hoop began in Titusville, Pennsylvania by Skyline Plastics, a division of Phillips Petroleum.
Wham-O fought various knockoff products after the initial introduction of the Hula Hoop and marketing played a big role in the Hula Hoop’s success. The toy was promoted at Southern California parks and playgrounds. Give aways and public demonstrations were used to ignite demand for the new product. Throughout the Hula Hoop craze, Wham-O promoted Hula Hoop contests, exhibitions, and demonstrations of new Hula Hoop tricks.
The Fad took off in July of 1958. Twenty five million Hula Hoops were sold in the first round months. Two year sales totaled 100 million units. At their peak, Wham-O was manufacturing 20,000 Hula Hoops per day.
As Britain had done centuries earlier, some countries discouraged use of the new toy. Japan felt the moves required to hoop were too suggestive while Russia denounced the Hula Hoop as an example of the “emptiness of American culture.”
According to the New York Times, the Hula Hoop “remains the standard against which all national crazes are measured.”