Donald F. Duncan, Sr. was known more for his entrepreneurial ventures than for his inventions.
Duncan was the founder of the Duncan Toys Company. You may recognize their name associated with a little thing called the Yo-Yo…While Duncan did not actually invent the Yo-Yo, he saw its potential, refined it and his marketing efforts brought it to iconic status during the 20th Century.
History of the Yo-Yo
The founding of Duncan Toys dates to the late 1920s, but the yo-yo itself goes back thousands of years. Though its exact origin is unknown, depictions of people using yo-yo like toys appeared in ancient Greece and Egypt, and a related toy, the Diabolo, was long known in China. It would later show up in the mid-1600s in the Netherlands and then in the late 1700s in India, France and England, where it was called a chucki, a bandalore and a quiz, respectively. It also made its way to the United States, where in 1866, James L. Haven and Charles Hettrick received a patent for an “improved bandalore.” Another country where the toy was familiar was the Philippines, where it was typically carved from a single piece of wood and called a yo-yo. Translated from that country’s Tagalog language, the name meant “come-come.”
The story of Duncan Toys begins with a native of Vintarilocos Norte, Philippines, named Pedro Flores.
In 1915, at the age of 16, Flores emigrated to the United States, where several years later he attended San Francisco’s High School of Commerce. After briefly studying law in the Bay Area, he moved south to Santa Barbara, where he ended up working a series of odd jobs. It was there, while employed as a bellboy, that he hit upon the idea of marketing the toy he had played with as a child in the Philippines.
In early 1928, Flores approached some wealthy Filipino immigrants in Los Angeles to ask for financial assistance but was turned down. Undaunted, he decided to go it alone and on June 9, 1928, formed the Yo-Yo Manufacturing Company. Within several weeks he had made a dozen handmade yo-yos, and by November had produced more than 2,000.
Interest in the toy began to spread, and during the month he won financial backing from James and Daniel Stone of Los Angeles. With their help, he was able to purchase equipment to boost production, and by the spring of 1929 more than 100,000 yo-yos had been made.
The toy’s popularity was now growing rapidly, due primarily to yo-yo spinning contests which Flores had begun sponsoring in late 1928. Contestants would try to see who could keep a yo-yo going up and down the longest, throw and return a yo-yo the farthest, or perform the most “perfect spins” in a five-minute period. The contests soon spread from coast to coast, boosting the popularity and sales of the yo-yo. By the end of 1929, Flores was employing 600 workers at three factories and producing thousands of yo-yos per day.
Flores’ yo-yos, which cost between 15 cents and $1.50, incorporated a new feature, the slip-string, which allowed the yo-yo to “sleep” or keep spinning when the string was fully extended. Competitors soon began to appear, and on July 22, 1930, he trademarked the name “Flores Yo-Yo,” a fact which was highlighted in the company’s slogan, “If it isn’t a Flores, it isn’t a yo-yo.” Some Flores yo-yos bore the notation that the company had applied for a patent, but in fact the bandalore patent of 1866 already covered the basic design.
Duncan discovers the Yo-Yo
One of Flores’ keenest competitors was Donald F. Duncan, an entrepreneur who had already found success with the Good Humor ice cream bar, and who had formed his own yo-yo company in 1929. In 1930, Duncan bought out Flores for a sum estimated at more than $250,000, and the Donald F. Duncan Yo-Yo Company began selling Flores yo-yos along with its own models. Pedro Flores was hired to promote the firm by sponsoring yo-yo contests around the country, which now featured many new competitive categories.
Duncan was as good, if not better than Flores at marketing, and his promotional acumen helped boost the sales of yo-yos even further.
Tapping Hearst to Market the Yo-Yo
In 1929, Duncan paid an uninvited visit to the San Simeon mansion of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.
Duncan needed a way to promote his yo-yo business. He talked his way past a butler and into a room with Hearst. Hearst snapped at his visitor to quickly state his business. Duncan detailed a scheme that would sell newspapers and yo-yos.
Under the plan, Hearst’s newspapers would advertise Duncan-sponsored yo-yo contests in which youngsters would compete for bicycles and sporting goods. In return, Duncan would require competitors to obtain three new subscriptions as entry fee.
Hearst liked the idea, but the public’s acceptance was beyond expectations. A 30-day campaign in the Philadelphia Daily News sold more than 3 million yo-yos.
The company also had a group of expert yo-yo players who traveled the country and gave demonstrations at places like candy stores to stimulate sales. The men, typically Filipinos, played up the “exotic” origin of the toy by telling stories of the yo-yos supposed use as a weapon in the Philippines, as well as carving pictures of birds and palm trees on the sides of the wooden yo-yos children bought. Other publicity was achieved through the use of paid celebrities like the children of the “Our Gang” movie shorts in ads, as well by the media’s publication of photographs that caught stars like Mary Pickford, Bing Crosby and Lou Gehrig playing with yo-yos.
Evolution of Duncan Yo-Yos
During the 1930s, Duncan offered a variety of different yo-yo designs, including the fixed string “O-Boy” beginners model, the tournament Gold Seal version, and even a tin whistling yo-yo.
Distribution was expanded internationally during the decade, helped by events like the World Yo-Yo Competition, which was held for the first time in London in 1932. The 1930s were a golden era for the toy, although sales fell off during World War II.
In 1932, the U.S. Patent Office issued Duncan a trademark for the word “yo-yo.” Competitors were forced to call their products Whirl-A-Gigs, Cheerios or Royal Return Tops.
In 1946, Duncan built a new yo-yo factory in the small town of Luck, Wis., where there was a large supply of hard maple, the main ingredient in the firm’s product. In 1950, the company introduced a new model, the plastic Electric Yo-Yo, which lit up courtesy of a battery-powered light inside. It was only briefly produced, but in 1954 Duncan began making a regular production plastic model, the junior-sized Pony Boy.
This yo-yo was made of polystyrene and had a BB inside that rattled. A short time later, the firm introduced the Imperial, made of tennite plastic, which duplicated the dimensions of the classic wood Model 77 that had been in production since 1929. The Imperial would go on to become the world’s best-selling yo-yo.
Several years later Duncan also introduced the wooden Butterfly model, which was a standard yo-yo turned inside out, giving the player a wider slot to catch the string in.
The Duncan Toys Company
In 1957, Donald F. Duncan retired and gave control of the company to his sons Donald, Jr. and Jack. By this time, Duncan completely dominated the yo-yo market, producing an estimated 85 percent of the toys made.
In 1959, the Duncan Toy Company began running its first television commercials, which debuted in Philadelphia. After they went on the air, sales there quickly increased from $20,000 to $100,000, and the company soon extended the campaign to more cities. A number of different designs were introduced during this period, including versions shaped like sports balls and a planet as well as multicolor plastic models with embedded glitter. By 1962, yo-yo sales were at an all-time high, and Duncan’s annual revenues rose to an estimated $7 million from $2 million several years earlier. In 1963, the company sold a record 33 million yo-yos.
In the early 1960s, a national television campaign intoned the slogan, “if it isn’t a Duncan, it isn’t a yo-yo!”
Unfortunately, efforts to challenge Duncan’s claim to the trademark mounted over the years. In 1965, Duncan’s company, financially drained by legal expenses and overextended by advertising costs, was forced into bankruptcy. That same year, a Federal Court of Appeals ruled that the trademark was invalid because the word yo-yo was the name of the toy itself.
Suddenly, the yo-yo belonged to the world.
In 1965, what was left of Duncan’s company was purchased by Flambeau Products, which continues to operate Duncan Toys as a subsidiary.
“The mistake we made was trying to fight the trademark battle,” says Donald F. Duncan, Jr., who in 1988 started his own yo-yo company, Playmaxx, in Tucson. “We spent thousands trying to keep it.”
1928: Pedro Flores starts making yo-yos in Santa Barbara, California.
1929: Entrepreneur Donald F. Duncan forms a rival yo-yo company.
1930: Duncan buys out Flores and acquires the trademark on yo-yo name.
1930s: Duncan becomes the dominant yo-yo maker through the use of contests and demonstrators.
1946: The firm builds a new yo-yo factory in Luck, Wisconsin.
1954: The first line of plastic yo-yos is introduced.
1957: Donald F. Duncan passes control of the company to his sons Don, Jr. and Jack.
1963: Yo-yo sales hit a peak; Duncan sells 33 million during the year.
1965: The company loses a lawsuit over yo-yo trademark and declares bankruptcy.
1968: Flambeau Products Corp. buys the Duncan name and resumes production.
1970s: Duncan adds new models and sends out demonstrators as yo-yo sales rebound.
1990: “Return of the Yo-Yo” exhibit tours shopping malls.
1995: A TV ad campaign and a middle-school yo-yo science program spark a new sales boom.
1997: The company buys the rights to market the Wizzzer, the world’s most popular spin top.
2001: High-tech yo-yo maker Playmaxx, Inc. is acquired.
Among the other companies Duncan founded are the Good Humor frozen treats franchise and a parking meter company which dominates that industry to this day. Most notable among Duncan’s invention credits is the concept of the premium incentive marketing tactic wherein one collects proofs of purchase (i.e. boxtops or UPC barcodes) and redeems them for rewards, such as small toys or discount coupons.
Even though he dealt with many struggles in his career, Duncan’s drive kept him going. Duncan® is now one of the oldest and best-known toy makers and it’s story is unique: one full of curiosity and invention that could only be fueled by the uniquely entrepreneurial spirit of America.