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My New Book!
My New Book!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

June 12, 2012: Playing with America, Part 2

[The second in a series on toys, games, and American Studies. Nominations, suggestions, nostalgic childhood memories, and all other responses very welcome!]
On the silliness and the subversiveness of one of the 1950s’ most striking fads, the hula hoop.
When it comes to analyzing toys and similar material culture artifacts, one of the most interesting and complex questions has to be why certain ones become insanely (and I mean that word literally) popular at a particular moment. These fads have no apparent logic, and tend to burn as briefly as they do brightly: one shopping season the Cabbage Patch dolls or Tickle Me Elmos are harder to find than El Dorado (I remember being in New York City one December and seeing street vendors selling those Elmos at $300 a pop), and the next they’re remaindered on the bargain shelves. Again, trying to analyze the reasons behind those meteoric rises might well be a fool’s errand, and it would be easy to make too much of social or cultural forces (rather than, for example, simple marketing or publicizing, and of course peer pressure). But with those provisions, I’m going to go ahead and do that anyway for one of the mid-20th century’s most prominent such fads: the hula hoop.
Hula hoops had been around in one form or another for centuries, but it was with the late 1950s marketing of a plastic hoop by the Wham-O toy company that a national fad began: beginning in July 1958, more than 25 million such plastic hoops were sold in four months, and more than 100 million were sold in the subsequent two years. Given that particular timing and its historical and cultural contexts, I can immediately think of a couple ways to analyze this fad: on the one hand, the Cold War and its tensions were significantly deepening, thanks to the USSR’s 1957 launch of Sputnik and various other factors, and the hula hoop’s mindless silliness would likely have seemed a welcome respite from air raid drills; and on the other hand, one of the decade’s overall national trends was the rise of cookie-cutter suburban developments, and it would be easy to connect that trend to a toy and a fad which requires everyone to do almost exactly the same thing in order to do it successfully (and which almost immediately led to group exhibitions, contests, and other communal efforts).
Both of those analyses seem to me to have value, but I would also highlight a somewhat less obvious and perhaps even more meaningful connection. In September 1956, in one of the decade’s most controversial cultural moments, up-and-coming singer Elvis Presley appeared on the hugely popular Ed Sullivan Show; during his performance, Elvis utilized his well-known hip gyrations (which had led to the nickname Elvis the Pelvis), and CBS famously refused to show anything from the waist down. As is so often the case, this attempted censorship thoroughly backfired, with the gyrations becoming more famous than ever and the whole experience catapulting Elvis to a significantly greater level of national prominence. Is it possible that the hula hoop represented a national parallel, a communal embrace of this subversive gesture and of the rock and roll sensibility that it literally and figuratively embodied? Maybe—and in a striking coincidence, one connecting these different cultural trends even more explicitly, two years to the day after Presley’s Ed Sullivan appearance the singer Georgia Gibbs appeared on the show to perform her hit “Hula Hoop Song.”
Next plaything tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Any fads you’d highlight and analyze?
6/12 Memory Day nominee: John Roebling, the German-born civil engineer and architect whose Brooklyn Bridge, while certainly his most famous (and one of America’s best known and most mythologized) project, was one of many pioneering achievements.

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