The late 1950s saw one of biggest fads documented by sociologists, the Hula Hoop. Like many fads, the hoop is deceptively simple. It is made of hollow plastic, usually very bright in color, and sometimes with the hollow carrying a couple of ball bearings, bells, or other noise makers. With a variety of sizes the diameter of a hoop toy ranges from 20 in (51 cm) to about 3 ft (91 cm).
Fads interest sociologists because they are adopted by a broad range of persons. To be called a fad, the idea must be a "key invention" that has the possibility of generating many offshoots. The Hula Hoop certainly fits this description because enough variations in size, color, and ornamentation of the hoop enabled each child to own a special version, and children can create their own styles of spinning the hoops. Hula Hoopspinning contests were held at local fairs, and records were established for the most hoops kept in motion for the longest time periods. These contests are reminders of yet another use of the hoop; jugglers have spun small-diameter hoops on their arms, legs, necks, and on sticks to the delight of circus crowds for generations.
Varieties of hoops have always been toys. Along with the ball, the hoop may be among the most popular toys. The ancient Greeks were the first to popularize the hoop, and many of their documents—including illustrations on pottery—show the hoop in action. The hoop was a toy for Greek children, but it was also an exercise device. Hooprolling was thought to be a light and beneficial exercise for people not strong enough for more intense exercise or sport. Roman children also played with hoops, and both Greek and Roman versions were made of metal fashioned from scrap strips.
Native Americans used hoops for more than just toys. Eskimos played a game in which a hoop is rolled and poles are thrown through it as it rolls. This game, for children and adults, taught practical skills needed in harpooning and other hunting. North American Indians used the hoop in many ways. Like the Eskimos, the Indians used it as a target for teaching accuracy in shooting arrows and in throwing. Among the Lakota Indians, hoop dancing became a sophisticated art form that is still practiced today. To the Lakota, the hoop represents the circle of life, the vast circle of the horizon as the viewer turns to look all around, and the many repeating patterns in nature like the cycle of the moon. In the hoop dance, the dancer may use 12-28 hoops to forms symbols and figures.
Like the Hula Hoop, the hoops made by the hoop dancer must be large enough to move over the shoulders and around the body; hoops that are about 28 in (71 cm) in diameter are made of natural materials like willow, rattan (a flexible but strong vine), or plastic tubing. Rattan or willow is soaked in water until it softens and can be shaped into a circle. The ends are wrapped with binding. The tubing easily takes the round shape, and a short length of wooden dowel is inserted into the matching ends to even the alignment and form a strong joint. This is also wrapped with binding. Colored binding is wrapped around the entire tube so patterns can be used in the dance. White, yellow, red, and black are the colors of the four directions (north, south, etc.) and the four races of human-kind, according to the Lakota.
Children's hoop toys in Western Europe were made of wood. Hoop-rolling also achieved fad status in England in the 1800s, and those hoops were wood fitted with metal strips or tires on the outer edge. Hoop rolling was called bowling a hoop. The hoop was propelled along the sidewalk, street, or ground with the hand or with a stick called a skimmer. This same fad traveled to the United States, and antique hoops are now favorite toys of collectors. Push hoops were used to help teach babies to walk. Usually, hoops for the very young contained bells or made other sounds to hold the child's interest. Another popular design had pieces of wood shaped much like the spools that hold sewing thread on the spokes of the push hoop. As the hoop turned, the spools slid back and forth on the spokes to make a jingling sound. The rolling hoop was patented in 1871 by Albert Hill. Hill's rolling hoops were about 12-20 in (20-51 cm) in diameter and were pushed with handles that were 20-27 in (51-69 cm) long. The handles and hoops were made of wood with a natural finish, but the noise-making spools were brightly painted.
Other hoops uses and games have long histories but are still known today. Hoops can be thrown, as in the game called quoits, or spun. They are used as targets in games like basketball, and, in football, suspended hoops or tires are targets for improving the aim of quarterbacks. Also in football, hoops or tires laid on the ground are used to improve foot mobility, coordination, and speed among players.
The toy known as the Hula Hoop was born out of the brainstorm of two American toy inventors who learned about an Australian practice. Arthur "Spud" Melin and Richard Knerr heard that Australian children used rings made of bamboo for exercise. They produced a plastic hoop in 1958 and promoted it around the Los Angeles, California, area by going to playgrounds, demonstrating the hoop to the kids, and giving away Hula Hoops. Their playground-to-playground salesmanship produced the biggest toy fad the United States has ever witnessed. In four months, over 25 million Hula Hoops were sold in the United States for $1.98 each; worldwide, over 100 million were sold in 1958 alone. In Japan, the hoop was banned, and the Soviet Union described it as evidence of the decadence of American culture. At the peak of its popularity, Wham-O, Inc. produced 20,000 hoops per day; it is estimated that the plastic tubing for all the Hula Hoops sold would stretch around the world more than five times.
Numerous records in the Guinness Book of World Records have involved hoop spinning; in 1999, Lori Lynn Lomeli spun 82 Hula Hoops at the same time for three complete revolutions, a feat that garnered her a place in the book. The Hula Hoop phenomenon never completely disappeared off toy shelves, but it has ebbed and flowed in popularity like most fads. In the late 1990s, the Hula Hoop again experienced a renaissance and appears to be going strong long after its 40th birthday.
The only materials in most hula hoops is plastic, pigments for coloring the plastic, any inserts like ball bearings, staples to close the circles, and paper labels with adhesive backing. Plastic is used to make both the hoop and the dowel-like insert forming the joint. Some hoops have ball bearings, beads, stars, glitter, bells, or other noise-makers inside the hollow tube. These add extra visual interest and motion or sound as the twirler spins the hoop. Metal staples and the paper labels are provided by outside, specialty suppliers.
Like all toys, the Hula Hoop, even in its simplicity, adapts to changing trends. Color trends change the color combinations in the hoops every few years (Wham-O changes the colors of its hoops every year), and toy designers look for other ways of varying and remarketing the toy to keep it among the top sellers. One recent design features fruit-scented hoops that give off a slight, pleasantly fruity smell as the plastic warns in play or in the sun. The scent matches the color of the hoop (grape scent for purple hoops, orange for tangerine-colored plastic, and so forth). Others are wrapped with glittery paper.
Children are not the only target market for design and sales of spinning hoops. Their
Plastics manufacture is a toy-making speciality. Makers of Hula Hoops usually make a number of colors, sizes, and other varieties. They also produce other plastic toys that use similar extrusion and molding techniques. Waste is minimal. When colors are changed in the extruder, the old color is wasted, but this amounts to only 0.1% of the volume of plastic used in hoop manufacture. Hoops that are defective are pulled from the manufacturing line and collected in bins for recycling.
Employee safety is carefully controlled by government regulation, employee training, and distance. Regulations by the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) limit employee exposure to the high heat and pressure of the extrusion machine. Safety guards keep employees a safe distance from the cutoff, twist machine, and other heavy machinery. The employees are also well educated in their own protection. In the 50-year history of the Wham-O Hula Hoop, there have been no factory injuries or injuries caused by the toy itself.
Quality enters the process during design when extrusion dies and other tools are made to low tolerances for error. This helps reduce irregularities during manufacture and waste of plastic. Inspectors are stationed at each machine to observe the product at every step. All employees have the responsibility of taking faulty hoops out of any stage of manufacture. A final quality audit is performed before the hoops are packed.
The Hula Hoop seems to have established a firm place in the American way of life and childhood. It now has a steady sales pattern and seems destined to remain a part of our play. The hoop's popularity is helped by modern emphasis on health and exercise. In the future, manufacturers expect to emphasize play patterns so the hoops can be used more like a game and to introduce new products to help make the hoop a purely individual toy. Just as older civilizations celebrated the symbolism of the circle, American children have found their own hoop dance to add to play and exercise.
Barenholtz, Bernard, and Inez McClintock. American Antique Toys. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1980.
Left Hand Bull, Jacqueline, and Suzanne Haldane. Lakota Hoop Dancer. New York: Dutton Children's Books, 1999.
Hula Hoops. http://www.hula-hoops.com (January 2001).
Wham-O, Inc. http://www.wham-o.com (January 2001).
— Gillian S. Holmes