RIP Co-Creator of Classic Fad - The Hula Hoop
Last week we lost Richard Knerr (on the right), co-founder of Wham-O, and sometimes credited with co-creating one of the most amazing fads in US history; the Hula Hoop. In 1958, inspired by Australian bamboo rings used for exercise, Wham-O manufactured their Hula Hoops in new-fangled candy striped plastic - later adding beads to make that trademark swooshing sound.
Knerr & partner's company Wham-O sold over 100 million Hula Hoops from 1958-1960 (25 million of those were sold in just four months). That means that just about every other US resident's hips were ringed by a hula hoop of their very own. However there's an even more amazing thing to consider in this "American Dream" success story.
After creating a national craze, and selling millions of hoops, can you guess what Wham-O's profits eventually were? Less than $10,000 and a massive stock of unsold hoops. Wham-O had made some bad business deals, and thought that the Hula Hoop fad indicated a permanent market. Also, the hoops tended to last for years - so in a way the toys were victims of their own plasticky durability.
In his 1985 book American Fads, Richard Johnson writes that the Hula Hoop is “the standard against which all national crazes are measured”. That's a telling statement, as we can learn a lot both from the meteoric rise of the fad, to the warehouses of unsold heaps of Hula's. In case you're worried, Wham-O did just fine even after the hoop swooped its last loop. They went on to invent and market such toys as the Frisbee, Nerf, Superball, and countless other perennial childhood favorites.
One of my favorite movies takes its inspiration from the hula hoop. It's a Cohen Brothers film called "Hudsucker Proxy", and while it's far from any real facts surrounding the actual invention of what they called the "Extruded Plastic Dingus", it's the kind of story that you wish happens along the way to developing a classic toy.