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Something as simple as a circle became a craze for kids

A toy that was "funner than heck" raged across Rochester in the summer of 1958.

Five children (7-12) playing with plastic hoops in park
Still going strong today, the hula hoop craze hit Rochester in 1958.
Bec Parsons/Getty Images
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Fads often take a little more time to reach the Midwest, so it’s no surprise that hula hoops, nearly a year after they had been introduced in California, became all the rage in Rochester in the late summer of 1958.

“The Hula-Hoop craze began on the West Coast, appeared on the East Coast, and now is spreading through the middle of the United States,” the Post-Bulletin reported on Sept. 9, 1958. Rochester merchants were swamped with demand for the plastic hoops.

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“One large Rochester store has sold more than 200, and half the local suppliers are awaiting additional shipments,” the newspaper said.

“We’ve never had anything like this before,” one salesman told the newspaper.

Even with school back in session, kids were finding time to twirl the hoops around their hips – or arms, legs, and even necks. The hoop could also be rolled in an upright position, and if given a backspin, would return obediently to its handler.

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“They’re funner than heck,” one 11-year-old hula-hooper told the Post-Bulletin.

The Hula-Hoop, as it was known commercially, was invented by Richard Knerr and Arthur Melin, who based the toy on a popular piece of exercise equipment they had seen in Australia. They came up with the name “hula” because the action required to spin the hoops around one’s hips resembled a hula dance.

In 1957, Knerr and Melin began manufacturing the hoops for their Wham-O toy company. The hoops were made of a heat-resistant plastic called Marlex, and were produced in different colors. They originally retailed for $1.98 in California stores, which was kind of pricey by 1950s standards.

No matter, Wham-O sold 20 million of the hoops in the first six months of production. To keep up with demand, Wham-O at one point was manufacturing 20,000 hoops each day.

Then the craze crossed the Atlantic, where Europeans, recovering from post-war austerity, were unable to resist this new toy from America. Predictably enough, though, commentators in the Soviet Union condemned the hoops as evidence of “the emptiness of American culture.”

Actually, there is some evidence that the act of spinning a hoop, whether for fun or exercise, was practiced in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.

But it took modern marketing and production techniques to turn the simple, modest hoop into a worldwide fad.

Meanwhile, back in Rochester, kids caught the hula-hooping bug as the days of summer vacation dwindled. Maybe it was a good distraction from dread of going back to school. Or, perhaps it was something fun to pick up while shopping for back-to-school supplies. Whatever the reason, the Post-Bulletin called hula-hooping an “obsession with hundreds of youngsters here.”

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Then, as quickly as it arrived, the hula-hoop craze started to fade. Sales of the hoops nationwide leveled off, and Wham-O had to develop new promotions to keep buyers interested. Knerr and Melin eventually turned their attention to a new item they had invented: the Frisbee.

Today, hula hoops are still available, and have found their niche among other exercise tools in the gym. Hula-hooping burns calories, works core muscles, improves cardio-vascular function and helps with balance. Weighted hoops make for an even better workout. Mayo Clinic says hula-hooping can provide the same positive benefits as, for example, salsa dancing.

So, the fad that arrived here somewhat late has found a reason to stick round. Now, we might say, hula hoops are more funner than ever.

Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.

Then and Now - Thomas Tom Weber col sig

Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.
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