The hula hoop is "a tubular, plastic hoop used for spinning round the body with movements akin to those of the hula". In the United States of America at least, Hula Hoop® is a registered trademark of the Wham-O corporation who first introduced the product in 1958. Naturally the hula hoop should not be confused with Hula Hoops (in the plural) which is a snack food manufactured in the United Kingdom by KP Snacks, part of the United Biscuits group.


The game of hoop-rolling or hoop and stick, where a hoop was propelled along the ground and controlled by the use of a hooked stick, was first recorded in Britain at the beginning of the nineteenth century, although even then it was recognised as being "a pastime of uncertain origin". Indeed it is said that the hoop was in use as a children's plaything for many centuries and that its use can be dated as far as back as 1,000 BC when Egyptian children were playing with hoops made from dried grapevines, and that the Ancient Greeks had a trochos, or hoop made of bronze, which apparently children would bowl along the ground with a stick and see who could make it travel the furthest.

It is not known who first thought of the idea of taking a hoop, placing round the waist and spinning it, but it is said that bamboo hoops were being used as such in Australia in the 1950s as a form of callisthenics. It has certainly been claimed that some unnamed Australian was visiting California and mentioned this to the founders of the Wham-O corporation, who then decided to produce their own version which was manufactured using a particular form of plastic known as crystalline polypropylene, sold under the trademarked name of Marlex by the Phillips Petroleum Company of Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Which as it turned out, was a godsend from the point of view of the Phillips Petroleum Company as they had previously been unable to find any market whatsoever for their new plastic. Of course Wham-O were unable to obtain a patent for their plastic hoop, since a hoop is a hoop no matter what it is made of, but they were able to market their hoops under the brandname and later trademark of 'Hula Hoop', being no doubt inspired by the fact that the gyrations necessary to keep a hoop spinning around the waist bore a similarity to the movements of the Hawaiian hula dance.

Of course manufacturing a plastic hoop was one thing, persuading people to buy one a completely different challenge. The owners of Wham-O, Richard Knerr and Arthur Merlin, therefore introduced the hula hoop to some children at the Pasadena Elementary School, and persuaded them to try them out by promising that the children could keep the hoops if they showed sufficient proficiency in their use. Having been satisfied by their first marketing trial, Wham-O salesmen then travelled across southern California handing out free hoops across the state's playgrounds. Thus was born the Hula Hoop craze which, according to one Richard Johnson in American Fads (1985) became "the standard against which all national crazes are measured", although it must be remembered that the hula hoop became an international phenomenon that stretched across much of the globe. However as far as the United States was concerned the craze proved short-lived. Having launched their marketing campaign at the beginning of the year, by April 1958 people were queuing around the block outside stores to get hold of one. But according to Chuck Knerr; "By September, you couldn't give them away. Once every household had two or three, it was over because they lasted forever." By November 1958 The Wall Street Journal was announcing that "Hoops have had it", and Wham-O was left with millions of unsold hoops and nursing a $10,000 loss.

The problem was that there was nothing to prevent other companies from producing their own plastic hoops, and a number of competing products such as the 'Spin-a-hoop' and 'Hoop-d-do' rapidly emerged, whilst it also said that it was difficult to either break or lose a hula hoop, and that therefore repeat sales were hard to come by. But whilst such factors might well have undermined its commercial success, the real problem with the hula hoop was that once a child (or indeed adult) had mastered the art of getting the hoop to spin around the waist, there wasn't a lot else to do with one. Boredom rapidly set in, and the plastic hoop was relegated to the back of the garage, never again to see the light of day. Various attempts made at reviving the product over the succeeding half century have all foundered as rapidly as the original craze once faced with this unfortunate truth.

Nevertheless Wham-O continues to market and sell the Hula Hoop to this day. The latest versions even come with a ball inside for the "shoop-shoop sound effect" and features "HOT NEW patented double colors". Indeed it is not alone. In the United Kingdom at least, there is The Hoola Hoop Company of Staines in Middelsex which markets its own plastic hoops, whilst Salveo Ltd of London sells the Funkey Hula which is a "body conditioner designed to help burn fat from the hips and waist" and features a "state of the art dynamic design". Indeed it appears that these days the hula hoop has reverted back to its presumed Australian origins as an exercise instrument, and the 'worldwide hooping community' appears to focus largely on the health benefits of regular hooping. (Hulaerobics was apparently the "latest hooping fitness craze" of 2007.) Sundry circus performers such as the Russian Dania Kaseeva have also developed hula hoop acts, although most professional performers tend to use aluminium rather than plastic hoops, whilst Guinness World Records continues to monitor certain hula hoop records such as the one for the largest number of hula hoops that can be spun simultaneously for three complete revolutions, which is currently held by one Jin Linlin of China, who managed 105 hoops on the 28th October 2007.


A warning and a note on the early history of the hula hoop

Richard Knerr died on the 14th January 2008 and his death naturally brought forth the usual round of obituaries. Having written a short account of the Wham-0 corporation I decided to read through his obituaries to see if they brought forth any additional information. It was as a result of that exercise that I came across his obituary in The Times which claimed that, in relation to the hula hoop;

Hoops had been popular in England in the 14th century (and even caused a rise in the incidence of heart attacks and bone dislocations, it is believed) the word "hula" had been added in the 18th century when sailors went to Hawaii and noticed the similarity between hula dancing and hooping.

Now I was particularly struck by the idea that fourteenth century English men and women were injuring themselves in their enthusiasm for hooping (perhaps they were trying to distract themselves from thoughts of the Black Death), as well as the notion of jolly jack tars hula hooping around the mast head, and curious as to why there was no mention of such things in the entire corpus of Patrick O'Brian's work. (And O'Brian was particularly well informed about day to day habits of the British sailor around the turn of 18th and 19th centuries.) It might be wondered where such peculiar notions might have originated. The straight forward explanation was that the journalist concerned had simply copied and pasted in a short paragraph from the Weakapedia entry for Hula Hoop without engaging his brain. (This is not the first time this has happened, as readers of Private Eye will have noted.)

As it happens both Merriam-Webster's and the Oxford English Dictionary date the first use of the term 'hula hoop' to the year 1958, the year in which Wham-O introduced the product, and it is almost undoubtedly they who coined the term to sell their product. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the term was in use by eighteenth century sailors; in any case Captain James Cook only 'discovered' the Hawaiian Islands in 1778 and there is no written references to the hula itself earlier than the year 1825. And even then, there is no reason to suppose why anyone would have drawn any connection between the practice of rolling a hoop on the ground and any kind of dance, and even if they had, it is far more likely that they would have picked something better known and closer to home such as belly dancing. The whole claim is absurd, as indeed is any notion of the medieval hooping craze. The heart attack is a comparatively modern concept, and it is an odds on certainly that no one was recording the "incidence of heart attacks" in the fourteenth century, apart from the fact that it is difficult to imagine why playing around with a hoop would give anyone a heart attack in the first place. (Slight bruising around the hips is as bad as it gets according to modern reports.) Such claims are so prima facie wrong on so many levels, it is difficult to believe that anyone would give them the time of day, but sadly they are merely another example of the complete and utter bollocks that frequently circulates around the Internet.

This is mentioned purely in case someone comes across such claims and wonders why they're not included, and also because it is perfectly possible that some future version of Weakapedia will 'cite' The Times as being a source for these erroneous claims.


SOURCES

  • The Original Hula Hoop® http://www.wham-o.com/default.cfm?page=ViewProducts&ProductID=23&Category=8
  • Funkey Hula - break the stereotype on hula hoops http://www.funkeyhula.co.uk/index.html
  • hula hoop from Merriam Webster http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hula%20hoop
  • hula hoop from the Oxford English Dictionary http://www.oed.com/
  • Toys photo gallery/08 Hoop and Stick http://www.museumeducation.bedford.gov.uk/bedfordbytes/toys/images_toys/gallery_toy_photos/pages/08%20Hoop%20and%20Stick_jpg.htm
  • Hula Hoops written by Lindsay http://library.thinkquest.org/3205/gather/U960815.192539.html
  • Joanna Hall, All you need to know about: Hulaerobics May 26, 2007 http://lifeandhealth.guardian.co.uk/wellbeing/story/0,,2087568,00.html
  • Mary Bellis, Hula Hoop - History of the Hula Hoop http://inventors.about.com/od/hstartinventions/a/Hula_Hoop.htm
  • Inventor of the Week Archive Hula Hoop http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/hulahoop.html
  • HULA-HOOP® http://www.ideafinder.com/history/inventions/hulahoop.htm
  • Dania Kaseeva - worlds's greatest hula hoop act http://www.talentbookingusa.com/comedy/dania-kaseeva.htm

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