The hula-hoop – coming full circle

Who would have thought something like a simple plastic hoop could provide so much fun and have such an interesting history?

Did you know that the ancient Greeks were known to have used grapevine hoops as exercise equipment to tone up the waist? And as far back as 3000 BC, Egyptians commonly used materials such as reeds and rattan to work into circular shapes or hoops. They would roll the hoop along the ground with a stick, or throw it up in the air or rotate it around the waist - just as we do now.

Image: Photographer unknown. Miss Westland and kindergarten children with a hoop from an Auckland Kindergarten Association photo album, 1931. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 1275-14-4.  
The hoop was used not only for fun, exercise and education, but also for religious and artistic purposes. The Lakota people added extra religious significance to the hoop by viewing it as representing the circle of life. Out of this they developed the hoop dance, a sort of story-telling dance incorporating as many as thirty hoops used as props to embody different elements from the story.

The hoop’s popularity continued through time and across continents. We can see from the well known Breugel painting Kinderspiele, from 1560, that in the middle ages the hoop was alive and well and fairly common place in Europe.
Making and using homemade hoops was an everyday pastime in English households in the fourteenth century, and they were used by all age groups, not only children. Apparently, hooping was prescribed by British doctors to treat various ailments such as bad backs and heart problems. We may have a different approach to medical treatment these days, but they clearly understood that there were some health benefits of exercise using the hoop.

The hoop toy continued to be popular across the world but it was another 300 years until the toy got the name 'hula hoop'. When British sailors visited Hawai’i they could not help but see the similarity in the swaying hip movement of the traditional hula dance with that of hooping. It made sense that they then joined the two concepts together to create the name 'hula-hoop'.

On our own shores, in the early 19th century, New Zealand hoops and tops were probably the most popular toys. Māori created piori (hoops) using aka (vines) which were either thrown or propelled with a stick. In the early period of European settlement iron hoops could be purchased cheaply from a local blacksmith and moved along with a stick. By the early 20th century the common material to make the hoop from was bamboo.

Image: Charles Mann. A group of children holding hula hoops at Campbell Free Kindergarten in Victoria Park, Freemans Bay, 1922. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1122-ALBUM-218-44.
By the mid-twentieth century many more varieties of toys had became available and small New Zealand toy companies became swamped by large overseas manufacturers.

The popularity of the hoop continued to grow and consequently it drew the attention of two American toy manufacturers, Richard P. Knerr and Arthur "Spud" Melin, the founders of Wham-O. They began producing brightly coloured plastic hoops that they re-named “hula-hoops” and in combination with an aggressive marketing campaign and the new medium of television, they really took off. The hula-hoop became very popular in 1958, when twenty-five million Wham-O Hula Hoops® were sold in four months. While the name Hula Hoop® was trademarked they were not able to trademark the hoop itself because of its long history and they could not identify exactly who invented it. 

The hula-hoop craze got caught up in the rapid world wide interest in all things Hawai’ian. This had its roots in America’s relationship with Hawai’i before the Second World War. Events in Pearl Harbour in 1941 and Hawai’i becoming a state of America in 1959 brought international attention to the islands. Helped along by Elvis Presley and the movie industry, the hula-hoop ran alongside the likes of tiki culture, all things surfing and developing tourism in Hawai'i.

The hoops commonly used by hoopers today are heavier and have a larger diameter than the classic toy hula hoop. Clever hoopers rotate the hoop not just around the waist but also the hips, chest, neck, shoulders, thighs, knees, arms, hands and even thumbs! We have also seen the evolution of the hula hoop into the worlds of art, fashion and even technology with Nintendo creating a virtual version of the popular game for its Wii console.

Although the craze has faded somewhat in recent times, enthusiasts young and old still use a (real) hula hoop for fun and exercise, so why don’t you give it a go and keep this ancient pastime going!

“If I do have a talent it is hula-hooping. I can hula-hoop forever” - Michelle Obama.
Author: Marilyn Portman, Heritage Collections
Image: Frank Douglas Mill. Young boy holding a hoop. Date unknown. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections FDM-0162-G. 

Books at Auckland Libraries about hula hooping:

Alistair Bryce-Clegg. 50 fantastic ideas for physical activities outdoors, Featherstone Education, 2013. 

Thelma Lynne Godin, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. The hula-hoopin' queen, Lee & Low, 2014.

Hoopnotica hoopdance. Beginning level 1, DVD. Hoopnotica, 2007.


Bellis, M, 2019, History of the Hula Hoop, viewed 24 August 2020. 
Buschle, C. M, 2010, Uncovering the history of the hula hoop, viewed 24 August 2020. 

Peter Clayworth, 'Children’s play - Traditional Māori and settler children’s play', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, viewed 24 August 2020. 

Kearnes, L, 2015, America became obsessed with Hawaii in the 1960s, viewed 9 September 2020., Hawaii modernism context study, n.d., viewed 9 September 2020. 

History of Hawaii/ Hawaii in popular culture, n.d., viewed 9 September 2020.