I must admit: I never thought that I would end up writing a blog about the yo-yo, but when I came across a 1791 picture on the British Museum site here showing the Prince of Wales reclining on his sofa while playing with his yo-yo it got my interest, Well, that, and also because the caricature shows Richard Brinsley Sheridan having a good fondle of Mrs Fitzherbert’s left breast. She is holding the hand of the rather bored Prince, while stroking Sheridan’s cheek and apparently rather enjoying the attention… I wasn’t particularly aware of the insinuation that Sheridan was having an affair with his royal friend’s mistress, but apparently it stemmed from the fact that while building works were going on in their rented accommodation, the Sheridans (Mr and Mr) were living for a while in the house belonging to Mrs Fitzherbert, so who knows what shenanigans went on!
I like some of the other details in the print – the bust marked ‘Claudius Rom: Imp:’ on the mantelpiece, and the reference to the gambling habits of the Prince with the dice-box and dice. His fondness for alcohol is shown by the figure of a baby Bacchus, astride a cask and holding up a glass. The open door shows us a glimpse of balustraded steps, leading to the bedrooms upstairs…
The caricature is by James Gillray and is entitled ‘Bandelures’ – apparently the Prince made the toy so popular that the other name for it was the ‘Prince of Wales toy.’ * It was also known as a quiz, and by the French as l’emigrette or jeu-jeu de Normandie.
There are various other drawings from the period of the French Revolution showing people playing with their yo-yos – either as a toy or as a stress reliever. This is a picture of the four year old dauphin Louis Charles (otherwise ‘Louis XVII’) and sometimes attributed to Mme. Vigee-LeBrun and dating from 1787.
There are reports that Napoleon played with his, (yo-yo, that is) before the Battle of Waterloo, while General Lafayette was hurling his about, some twenty years before. They became a fashion accessory – ladies would absent-mindedly dangle them from a dainty finger while promenading, as seen from this French fashion print:
Mind you there was nothing new about the yo-yo – ancient Greek pottery shows the toy from 4 or 5 centuries BC and it also appears in ancient Chinese and Indian pictures. Supposedly the name comes from the Philippines where ‘yo-yo’ was a word meaning ‘come-back’ and described a weapon used to hunt animals. The user would hide in a tree and hurl a sharp, pointed, object attached to a rope at any animal passing below, hoping to stun or kill the poor beast. The rope would then be hauled back so that the yo-yo was ready to be re-used. For my money the word may just as well have been derived from the French ‘jeu-jeu’, or maybe both contributed to the word used to describe a toy which was obviously very popular, especially with Americans in both the 19th and 20th centuries.
For a period of perhaps twenty years it was the “fashion accessory” and stress-buster to the Regency fops and ladies-about-town, before sinking back to being a popular child’s toy, in much the same category as the spinning top. Ah, the yo-yo life of the yo-yo!
*‘The ‘Prince of Wales toy’ is of course not at all the same thing as the toy Prince of Wales, shown here courtesy of a site called Obsessionistas: