The yo-yo, in one form or another, has existed for some 3000 years, with conflicting historical evidence suggesting a possible origin in 1000 BC China. From there, it migrated to the Philippines, India (where it was called a "chucki"), and Europe, where examples made of metal, wood, and terra cotta date to 500 BC Greece.
By the 18th century, both the French and British were playing with the "bandalore," and the term was also used in the U.S. until 1928, when Philippine immigrant Pedro Flores initiated the modern era.
Determined to go into business for himself, Flores set up shop in California to manufacture "yo-yos," the common Philippine name for the toy. He trademarked the name, improved the design by looping, not tying, the string around the axle, and arranged competitions to showcase the new tricks generated by the design change.
By 1929, Flores' Yo-Yo had become a tremendous success and attracted the attention of inventor and businessman Donald F. Duncan. In 1930, Duncan bought out Flores, thus obtaining the coveted Yo-Yo trademark. (All other companies had to refer to their products as "returns," "whirl-a-gigs," "twirlers," etc.)
The Duncan Yo-Yo, the most popular in the world, reigned supreme for 35 years. It was during this period that the company produced the models, mostly made of wood, that are some of the most sought after by collectors today. These include the Butterfly, the Rainbow, Satellite, Day-Glo and Luck-E-JADO, just to name a few.
In 1965 the golden age of the yo-yo ended in court. The Duncan Company had been embroiled in a protracted legal battle over the registration of "Yo-Yo" as a trademark. Not long after the court determined that the term had become generic and was not eligible to be protected as a trademark, the company filed for bankruptcy and its assets were sold. The Flambeau Plastics Company owns and manufactures the Duncan line of yo-yos of today.
Recently in the U.S., there has been a resurgence in the cult of the "Yo." Continued innovations in design and the reintroduction of local and national competitions have combined to make yo-yos popular once again. The yo-yo has been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame http://www.strongmuseum.org/NTHoF/NTHoF.html. And the British Association of Toy Retailers has called it the "Craze of the 20th Century."
All this attention has only served to make yo-yos highly collectible. An original Flores #577 sold for $2,375. A 1998 Coca-Cola "Happy Holidays" yo-yo by Russell sold for $102. And a yo-yo signed by President Nixon in 1974 and presented to country music legend Roy Acuff fetched $16,029 - a world record - at the auction of Acuff's estate after his death in 1992.
As with any collectible, look for specimens in mint or near-mint condition and with original packaging. Logos should be clean and well centered. If the yo-yo is of wood or painted metal, paint should be bright and in good condition with as few chips, dents, and scratches as possible. Strings need not be original, as they are easily replaced, but the yo-yo itself should show no signs of repair. (If you come across any old packages of strings at yard or estate sales, buy them. A #1865 Duncan 2 for 5 cents can go for $20 or more, while a pack of #1888 Goody strings 3 for 5 cents can demand over $200!)
For more information on collectible yo-yos and related memorabilia, the following books and websites are recommended:
The American Yo-Yo Association
Official website: articles, links, newsletter archives.
Dave's Wonderful World of Yo-Yos
Online museum of yo-yos and related memorabilia; list of U.S. yo-yo patents; web board; links; more.
Official website: history, museum, FAQs.
The National Yo-Yo Contest and Museum
"The worlds largest public display of yo-yo's and contest history."
Hosts the U.S. National Yo-Yo Contest in Chico, CA, every October.
The Smothers Brothers' Yo-Yo Man Home Page
Let the Yo-Yo Man be your guide to the enlightened "State of Yo." Cartoons, videos, fun!
Comprehensive history; pictorial grading scale; tips on buying, selling; list of "top prices" paid for yo-yos; more.
"Collectible American Yo-Yos - 1920s-1970s: Historical Reference & Value Guide," by Christopher Cook
"Collecting Yo-Yos," by James L. Dundas
"Lucky's Collectors Guide to 20th Century Yo-Yos: History & Values," by Lucky J. Meisenheimer
"Tops & Yo-Yos, & Other Spinning Toys"