Duncan Toys Company
Duncan Toys Company
Wholly Owned Division of Flambeau Products
Corporation Incorporated: 1929
Sales: $20 million (2002 est.)
NAIC: 339932 Game, Toy, and Children’s Vehicle Manufacturing
Duncan Toys Company is the number one manufacturer of yo-yos in the world. The firm produces a wide variety of styles, ranging from simple plastic beginner’s models and reproductions of classic wooden designs to “high-tech” modern yo-yos with special inner bearings that allow performance of advanced tricks. Duncan also makes spin tops under the Wizzzer and Tetra Tops brand names and markets instructional videos and other yo-yo related items. The company is owned by Flambeau Products Corporation, which purchased the Duncan name and goodwill after the firm went bankrupt in the mid-1960s. In 2001, Duncan acquired Playmaxx, Inc., a leading competitor that had been founded in 1976 by former company owner Donald F. Duncan, Jr.
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.
Flores Sells Out to Donald Duncan: 1930
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. He would also later start a firm that manufactured most of the parking meters sold in the U.S. 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.
Donald Duncan was as good, if not better than Flores at marketing, and his promotional acumen helped boost the sales of yo-yos even further. A cross-promotion with the Hearst newspaper chain would prove to be particularly successful. Duncan arranged to get free advertisements from Hearst to promote the firm’s yo-yo contests in exchange for limiting participation to players who had sold three subscriptions to a Hearst paper. In one such promotion in Philadelphia, Duncan reportedly sold 3 million yo-yos in 30 days.
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.
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 1946, Duncan built a new yo-yo factory in the small town of Luck, Wisconsin, 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 company was now also marketing wooden spin tops.
In 1957, Donald F. Duncan retired and gave control of the company to his sons Donald, Jr. and Jack. He would sell a sister firm, Duncan Parking Meter Corporation, in 1959. By this time, Duncan completely dominated the yo-yo market, producing an estimated 85 percent of the toys made.
In 1959, Duncan 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. The latter series, known as Mardi Gras, was intended to appeal to girls, who were under-represented in the ranks of yo-yo aficionados. 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.
Lawsuit Leads to Bankruptcy in 1965
Duncan’s competition was heating up, however, and the firm became embroiled in a protracted court battle with the Royal Tops Manufacturing Co., which had been founded in 1937 by a former Duncan demonstrator, Joe Radovan. Duncan sued Royal over the latter’s use of the name “yo-yo,” asserting that it was an exclusive trademark. In 1965, Royal won the case, but neither company benefited from the victory as legal costs forced both into bankruptcy. The most recent yo-yo craze had faded by the time the suit was settled, helping to seal Duncan’s fate.
In 1967, the company’s yo-yo turning lathes were sold to Fred Strombeck, who used them to manufacture the “Medalist” brand wooden yo-yo, and in 1968 Flambeau Products Corporation bought the Duncan name and good will. Flambeau had made plastic yo-yos for the firm since 1955 and had retained the company’s molds.
The reconstituted Duncan soon began to introduce new models, including the Jewel, the butterfly-style light-up Satellite, the fuzz-covered Velvet, the slimline Professional, and later the Wheels series, designed to look like various muscle-car wheels. The early 1970s saw sales begin to take off once again, and Duncan revived the practice of hiring demonstrators to travel the country performing yo-yo tricks.
Building on “the original and world’s #1” yo-yo, Duncan is focused to be the brand leader in high quality toys for learning and fun.
The technical side of yo-yo design saw a number of new developments during the 1970s and 1980s, though most of the ideas came from outside of Duncan. In 1976, Donald F. Duncan, Jr. founded a firm which later became known as Playmaxx to market a high quality plastic yo-yo called the ProYo, which had a weighted rim and brass axle that yielded longer spin times. In 1980, inventor Michael Caffrey patented an internal clutch mechanism, and in 1985 a Swedish firm introduced a yo-yo with a ball bearing transaxle that would later revolutionize yo-yo play. Duncan itself brought out the World Class model, a butterfly-shaped yo-yo which had metal weight rings and a teflon-coated axle for longer sleep times, but did not keep it in production.
“Return of the Yo-Yo”: Late 1980s
Despite these improvements, yo-yo sales were in decline, with just 500,000 sold industry-wide in 1985. That year saw Duncan lure one of the firm’s former marketing executives out of retirement to help boost sales. Clyde Mortensen had worked for the company during its heyday of the early 1960s, and he soon turned to the medium that had brought success more than two decades ago—television. In February 1986, Duncan began running 30-second spots on youth-oriented cable television networks, including Nickelodeon and USA. Sales soon tripled, and the ad campaign was expanded.
The yo-yo revival was also influenced by other factors. In 1985, yo-yos were in the public eye when an astronaut played with a yellow plastic Duncan Imperial aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, making it the first yo-yo in space. The following year comedian Tommy Smothers introduced his trick-performing “Yo-Yo Man” character on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, which he reprised in 1987 on the Smothers Brothers’ weekly television program. An instructional video subsequently released by Smothers sold an estimated 200,000 copies.
In 1990, Duncan sponsored an exhibition called “Return of the Yo-Yo” that traveled to shopping malls around the United States for more than a year. The Duncan Family Collection was exhibited and professional yo-yo demonstrators appeared at the opening of each stop of the tour. The Duncan collection would later become a central part of the National Yo-Yo Museum in Chico, California. Sales of yo-yos were now booming, with an estimated 12 million sold during 1990, the majority of which bore the Duncan logo. Other developments of this time period included the reappearance of yo-yo contests and the founding of the American Yo-Yo Association and other yo-yo fan groups. The company was now producing 11,000 of the toys each day, which were typically sold through large retailers like Wal-Mart and Kmart.
Another Revival in the Mid-1990s
As had happened before, the new yo-yo craze soon faded, and sales became stagnant. In 1993, Duncan hired yo-yo inventor Michael Caffrey, a one-time company demonstrator and cofounder of competitor Yomega, to head the firm’s marketing and sales department. In 1995, he returned to the firm’s proven sales-boosting strategy and introduced a new television commercial known as “Video Boy,” which was intended to position yo-yos as an alternative to video games. Caffrey also added a new marketing wrinkle of his own by devising an educational program called “Teaching Science With the Yo-Yo.” Written with the assistance of a college physics professor and a middle-school science teacher, it used yo-yos to teach basic principles about rotational physics and kinetic energy. Duncan was soon distributing a teacher’s guide and series of five lessons to 80,000 sixth-grade classrooms and offering yo-yos at low prices for educational use.
By 1996, Duncan’s sales were approaching 5 million yo-yos for the year, which yielded $5 million in revenues—an improvement of 50 percent over 1994. Playing up its heritage, in 1996 Duncan released its first wooden yo-yo since the 1960s, a reissue of the 1955 Super Tournament model, which was available in five colors and came packaged with a reproduction of the company’s 1955 Yo-Yo Trick Book.
- Pedro Flores starts making yo-yos in Santa Barbara, California.
- Entrepreneur Donald F. Duncan forms a rival yo-yo company.
- Duncan buys out Flores and acquires the trademark on yo-yo name.
- Duncan becomes the dominant yo-yo maker through the use of contests and demonstrators.
- The firm builds a new yo-yo factory in Luck, Wisconsin.
- The first line of plastic yo-yos is introduced.
- Donald F. Duncan passes control of the company to his sons Don, Jr. and Jack.
- Yo-yo sales hit a peak; Duncan sells 33 million during the year.
- The company loses a lawsuit over yo-yo trademark and declares bankruptcy.
- Flambeau Products Corp. buys the Duncan name and resumes production.
- Duncan adds new models and sends out demonstrators as yo-yo sales rebound.
- “Return of the Yo-Yo” exhibit tours shopping malls.
- A TV ad campaign and a middle-school yo-yo science program spark a new sales boom.
- The company buys the rights to market the Wizzzer, the world’s most popular spin top.
- High-tech yo-yo maker Playmaxx, Inc. is acquired.
The yo-yo boom continued to grow in 1997, with Duncan’s output lagging behind demand, even with its Columbus, Indiana, plant running 24 hours a day, seven days per week. A second production line was subsequently opened at Flambeau Products’ Middlefield, Ohio, headquarters. Demand for yo-yos was not confined to the United States, and Duncan reported strong sales in foreign markets such as Australia, England, and Japan. In the last-named country, Duncan sold one million yo-yos in just two months’ time. The year 1997 also saw Duncan sign a licensing agreement with Coca-Cola—for which it produced 18 different yo-yo designs using the beverage maker’s logo—and acquire the rights to make the Wizzzer, a toy top that had a friction motor inside to make it spin faster. The 30-year old toy had previously been marketed by several other companies, including Mattel, and was considered the world’s best-selling top. It was priced at $3.95, just a dollar more than Duncan’s most basic yo-yo.
Nineteen ninety-eight was another banner year for yo-yos, with total sales for the industry reaching an estimated $35 million, of which Duncan’s share was 65 percent. The firm’s top competitor, Yomega, was having success with high-tech yo-yos like its Brain and Fireball models, which incorporated many newer design features, and in the fall of 1999 Duncan introduced a new line of yo-yos with take-apart bodies and ballbearing transaxles. These included the Imperial-shaped Ballistic, which had an adjustable weight system and interchangeable graphics; the light-up, Imperial-shaped ORB; and the open-face, uniquely shaped Avenger. These would form the basis of the company’s “Hardcore” line, which later added other models.
The year 2000 saw Duncan further expand its high-tech offerings with acquisition of the German Mondial design from CameYo. The $100 aluminum yo-yo was touted by the company as the most advanced model ever produced. It featured a self-lubing ball-bearing and an adjustable string gap. Duncan was now marketing its yo-yos more aggressively than ever, using a controversial television commercial that featured people holding their yo-yo (middle) fingers toward the camera. This commercial was run on sports programs and during wrestling shows. Though complaints were received from a number of family groups, the company’s sales continued to rise. Duncan was also using traditional promotional methods, hiring talented yo-yo players like Steve Brown and Chris Neff to crisscross the country doing demonstrations.
In 2001, Duncan introduced the Freehand model, an extra-wide butterfly shaped yo-yo which was the first one that could be used without being tied to a player’s hand. Freehand-style play had been invented by Steve Brown, and his picture was used on the package. In December 2001, Duncan bought Playmaxx, Inc., makers of high-tech yo-yos like the ProYo, Bumble Bee, and Cold Fusion models. A number of patents held by Playmaxx were acquired in the deal. Steve Brown himself received a patent during the year for his own freehand counterweight system, which was assigned to Flambeau Products.
Nearly 75 years after it was founded, Duncan Toys Co. had come full circle, going from leading the yo-yo industry, to bankruptcy, and then back again. The yo-yo itself had evolved from a simple child’s toy into a high-tech product with a number of variations, and Duncan’s offerings covered the entire range of yo-yo styles.
Yomega Corporation; Royal Tops Manufacturing Company.
Berg, Eric N., “In a World of Space-Age Toys, A Return of String and Spool,” New York Times, April 14, 1991, p. 1A.
“Donald Duncan, 78; Promoter of Yo-Yo and Parking Meter,” New York Times, May 16, 1971, p. 74.
Greenberg, Herb, “Around the World: Yo-Yo Shortages,” Fortune, June 23, 1997, p. 40.
Hannon, Kerry, “Nostalgic Yo-Yos Spin into Record Popularity,” USA Today, December 28, 1998, p. 3B.
Kawa, Barry, “Yo-Yos Back in the Swing,” Plain Dealer, July 12, 1999, p. 1B.
McClellan, April, “Up-and-Down Trends No Worry to Spin Doctors,” Plain Dealer, September 1, 2002, p. B4.
Meisenheimer, Lucky, MD, “Pedro Flores,” American Yo-Yo Association Newsletter, September 1997.
Munno, Greg, “Yo-Yos on a Climb,” Plain Dealer, May 24, 1996, p. 1C.
Payne, Melanie, “Duncan Toys Cashes in as Yo-Yo Mania Spreads Across America,” Akron Beacon Journal, July 23, 1997.
Rubin, Sylvia, “Just Say Yo,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 23, 1990, p. B3.