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Yo-Yo Fun, Some Strings Attached

A sampling of the Smithsonian's yo-yo display.
Tina Tennessen, NPR
A sampling of the Smithsonian's yo-yo display.
Some yo-yos "sing," although they're really just one-note performers.
Tina Tennessen, NPR /
Some yo-yos "sing," although they're really just one-note performers.

There was a lot of spin going on in Washington, D.C., this week, and not just the political kind. Some of the world's best yo-yo artists, part of Team YoYoJam, performed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Among them was the reigning world champion, Hirouki Suzuki of Japan.

David Shayt is the curator who oversees the museum's yo-yo collection. He says the ball-and-string contraption is much more popular than some of the others he oversees -- including the noble hammer.

Obviously the yo-you evokes childhood memories for many visitors. But as Shayt points out, the toy has also fascinated businessmen and inventors over the years. It's a marketing tool, and a subject of experimentation. One example: the musical yo-yos created in the 1930s by the Duncan family. Built of metal, with wind vents, they produce a singing sound. D-flat, Shayt thinks.

The Smithsonian collection also includes one yo-yo that looks like a hamburger and another that has a winking Buster Brown with his dog. And of course few trips through Americana would be complete without a nod to the real thing: a red-and-white yo-you with the simple inscription "Coca-Cola."

Why is the yo-yo so, so popular?

"Maybe it's because they're impractical," Shayt ventures. "They don't accomplish a lot other than going down and coming back up. Their charm is in their simplicity, in their color, in their marketing, and in their history."

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