Ever twirled and spun with a Hula Hoop? Played Hackey Sack football with friends? Tossed a Frisbee in the park? Or played with a Superball? Each of these popular toys were designed and marketed by the Wham-O toy company. Each item became a fad when it was introduced and today these toys have become steadfast icons of our culture.
What came first? In 1948 friends Richard Knerr and “Spud” Melin decided to market a slingshot. Both men were unhappy in their day jobs and dubbed their creation “The Wham-O” after the sound an object makes when striking a target. Over the next few years as the slingshots sold well, they founded a company and named it after their successful slingshots – Wham-O.
Wham-O’s next major success was inspired in Australia when another friend spotted youth working out with bamboo rings. The idea seemed sound and had plenty of potential for fun so the Wham-O company began making rings out of a hard plastic called Marlex. Introduced in several different colors in 1957 and dubbed Hula Hoops, Wham-O’s rings began to sell. Hula Hoops soon became the hottest toy fad at that time and in the first months, stores nationwide sold 25 million. After two years, sales had reached 100 million and the Hula Hoop was here to stay. It was – and is – popular with children and many adults. Any baby boomer has his or her own fond memories of Hula Hoops from their childhood days.
Next came another popular toy, one that spawned countless imitations – the Frisbee. Wham-O did not discover the Frisbee – instead, a man named Fred Morrison spotted college kids in the East playing catch with pie plates from the campus cafeterias. They tossed these back and forth for fun because they sailed through the air. Some of the pie plates were stamped “Frisbee’s Pies” inside. Mr. Morrison designed a plastic version and dubbed it the “Pluto Platter”. Sales began to increase but after Wham-O bought the rights to the product from Morrison and renamed it the Fribsee (to reflect its’ humble origins), Frisbees became one of the fads of 1959. That was the year that popular songs like “Mack The Knife” and “The Battle of New Orleans” were hot on the charts.
In 1965, Wham-O hit with another item: The Superball. Sold for less than a dollar each between July and December of ’65, Superballs were advertised as a ball like no other. Superballs – one of the few Wham-O fad toys that failed to gain long term popularity – were often blamed for a few bruises and even black eyes. Even so, seven million were sold that year.
Although Hackey Sacks are a newer invention, they rank among Wham-O’s top sellers. Hackey Sacks began in 1972 when a man recovering from knee surgery sought a different form of physical therapy. By 1982, his minature size football had caught Wham-O’s attention and the company bought the license to the product. The Hackey Sack craze began and the popularity continues today.
Wham-O has introduced many toy and amusement products to the American consumer but these are the most famous, the ones that have become childhood icons for youth. Few Americans have never owned a Hula Hoop, a Frisbee or a Hackey Sack. Most have owned all three and many still do!
As fun moves into the 21st century, what will Wham-O develop next? The fun is that the public will wait and see. Whatever Wham-O markets stands an excellent chance of being a hit – and the nation’s next fad!