Ancient artifact, '50's craze and modern performance art. The humble hula-hoop's been there, done all that.
The use of hoops as a toy, and in children's games, dates back to ancient times. There are records of games including hoops in ancient Egypt and Rome and during the medieval and renaissance periods in Europe. Pieter Bruegel's 'Children's Games' (1560) illustrates the popularity of the hoop as a toy perfectly. Most evidence seems to point to the hoop's being bowled along the ground with a stick. Let us jump forward a few centuries......
You Crazy Kids
As an Australian, it is with a sense of satisfaction that I notice it was the casual remark of an Aussie that inspired the hula-hoop craze that swept the world in the '50's and '60's, although it took a couple of enterprising Californians to take that casual remark and generate said craze. If I know anything about my countrymen, having idly mentioned that the kids back home used bamboo hoops for exercise in gym class, he probably reached for another beer while the Californians Richard Knerr and Arthur 'Spud' Melin thought 'hmmmm....'
The hoops were made of a plastic called Marlex, and the name 'hula-hoop' came from the hula dances of the Hawaiian Islands, which people seemed to imitate when twirling the hoops. The idea of the game was to twirl one or more hoops around your waist/torso/neck/arm/foot/leg/body part of choice for as long as possible. It was plugged not only as a children's game, but as an exercise for keeping fit and toned.
Wham-O, the company that initially manufactured the hoop, sold 25 million hula-hoops in the first two months, followed by 100 million international orders. I hope that beer was cold....
The initial craze was short-lived. However.....
Baby, look at me now!
Like so many things these days, people who are seriously into hooping, as it now seems to be known, certainly don't do things by halves. Hooping is a dedicated performance art, as anyone who has seen performances by groups such as Cirque du Soleil will testify. Hoops are also used in dance, meditation and fire hooping (yes, that's right, twirling one or more burning rings around your body!?!)
The world record for hula-hooping the most hoops at the one time is held by Cia Granger of Finland, who spun 83 standard sized hoops at once for 3 full revolutions.