Monday, February 15, 2016

Hopping Stilts and Chorus Girls - a History and Etymology of "Pogo" Sticks

In American pop-culture, the idiom “jumping the shark” refers to the moment a TV show, or more generally any trend or practice, resorts to increasingly ridiculous gimmicks to get attention.  The phrase was named for a scene in an episode of Happy Days, when too-cool-for-school Fonzie jumps over a shark pen on water skis. 

The “Fonz” was not the first pop-cultural icon to “jump the shark.”  In October of 1921, in the midst of a worldwide pogo-sticking craze, Pogo sticks poetically “Jumped the shark”:

A pearl-diving native of Togo,
Obtained, from a trader, a pogo.
     He tried, for a lark,
     To jump over a shark.
But the shark pogo’d too, so ‘twas no go.

The Sketch, Volume 116, October 5, 1921, page 34.

A few months later, the Pogo craze may have figuratively “jumped the shark,” when Florenz Ziegfeld pulled off an early precursor of The Man Show’s trademark girls jumping on trampolines – girls jumping on Pogo sticks:

A group of the “Midnight Frolic” girls went shopping on Fifth Avenue yesterday using their pogo jumping sticks.  For about half an hour Fifth Avenue had a hard time.

The Evening World, December 6, 1921, final extra, page 28.

Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), December 3, 1921, Night Extra, page 24.
At the time, the Pogo stick was less than one year old.  The Pogo stick was arguably invented in England in early 1921; if not in Germany in early 1920.  The German “hopping stilt,” which may or may not have been a full-fledged Pogo stick, was intended as an improvement on an earlier design, with roots in 1880s Wichita, Kansas. 

In 1955, George Hansburg of Upstate New York, reinvigorated the Pogo stick; merging the traditional, wooden toy with new technology, new materials and a handlebar.  Hansburg’s modernistic, metallic Pogo stick was so successful that it edged out the hula hoop, to be named Time Magazine’s the 34th greatest toy of all time.  His company, Flybar, still makes Pogo sticks, and continues to push the boundaries of extreme Pogo technology.

Reports that Hansburg invented the Pogo stick in 1919 are almost certainly untrue.  The Pogo-fad started in Europe, where the earliest Pogo-patents were filed after 1919.  Hansburg made headlines in 1919, but not for inventing the Pogo stick - more on that later.

Invention of the Pogo Stick

There may be no single “inventor” of the Pogo stick.  It may be the result of step-wise improvements by a succession of inventors, each of whom contributed an important element.  The three necessary features of a “Pogo stick” are the spring-mounted base, two footrests, and a handle; each of which were first described in three separate patents, spanning forty years. 

The Handle

The final piece of the puzzle was the handle.  The handle first appears in the earliest known, unambiguous description of a fully-formed Pogo stick.  Walter Lines filed his patent for a “jumping stick” in 1921:  

Double Footrest 

On May 9, 1920, Max Pohlig and Ernst Gottschalk, of Hannover, Germany, filed a patent application on an improved “spring-action hopping stilt” (“Federnd wirkende Huepfstelze”).  The distinctive feature of their invention was a double footrest.  Earlier “hopping stilts” came in pairs, one stilt strapped to each calf.  Pohlig and Gottschalk believed that using a single stilt, with a double footrest, would be less awkward, and therefore more useful:

It is known to provide a spring-activated hopping-stilt, with a single foot-rest surface for human feet, and which is to be strapped to a wearer’s calf.  Such hopping-stilts are difficult and awkward to use, and therefore are not widely used.

By this invention, and without more, a generally usable hopping stilt, as much for children as for adults, is achieved; in which the suspension comprises a spring mounted between the pole and base, whereby a foot rest for a human foot is arranged on both sides of the pole.

German Patent DE 352704A, Gottschalk and Pohlig.

Gottschalk and Pohlig’s drawing looks very much like the lower end of a Pogo stick, but they did not provide a drawing or description of the upper end of the stick.  It is unclear whether they imagined a single stilt strapped to the user’s calves, like previously known hopping stilts they mention, or an actual Pogo stick with a handle.  But even if they did not “invent” the Pogo stick, as such, they appear to have at least invented the concept of using a single stick, with a double-footrest.

Spring-Mounted Base

Strap-on hopping stilts, like the earlier stilts Pohlig and Gottschalk described, may have their roots in Wichita, Kansas.  In 1881, George Herrington of Wichita, patented a pair of “spring stilts” for “leaping great distances and heights, and for walking or running with great rapidity and ease”:

If Pohlig and Gottschalk are to be believed, Herrington’s jumping stilts and their progeny never enjoyed wide success.

The Name

POhlig and GOttschalk may have made one more significant contribution to Pogo – its name.  It is generally assumed that Pogo is an acronym formed from the first syllables of Pohlig and Gottschalk.  Forming acronyms from first syllables, as opposed to first letters, is a common practice in German. 

“Pogo” may also have been a play on the German dialect word,  “Pogge,” meaning frog; in which case, the inventors' names may have been a fortunate coincidence.

Abhandlungen herausgegeben vom Naturwissenschaftlichen Verein zu Bremen Vol. 2 (1871) - page 308.
Although a German origin of “Pogo” seems believable, perhaps even likely, it is as yet unproven.  It is curious that all of the early Pogo-craze reports came out of England and France; not Germany.  It is also not unheard of for there to be a too-good-to-be-true coincidence involving the naming of an iconic piece of pop-culture. Mad Magazine’s poster boy, Alfred E. Neuman, for example, was named after Alfred Newman, a well-known film-score composer. Alfred E. Neuman’s face, on the other hand, was based on an image that originated as a theatrical poster for the play, The New Boy.  “New Boy,” “New Man” – “Neuman” – you can’t write this stuff.  It’s true, but most likely just a coincidence.

An article about Pogo sticks in France may support the German connection; it uses Pohlig and Gottschalk's terminology, “hopping stilt,” in conjunction with “pogo,” suggesting, perhaps, an association between the two: 

Hopping Stilts are the New French Playthings. 

“I think I’ll hop down to the office and see how things are,” says the French business man to his wife.  And “hop” is just exactly what he means.  For France, and especially Paris, has taken to the “pogo” stick, a stick equipped with two rests for the feet.

Illustrated World, Volume 36, Number 6, February, 1922, page 900.

But whatever the inspiration for the name, the name was in use by mid-1921.  When The Pogo Company of New York City filed for trademark for the word, POGO, for use in association with “jumping sticks,” they claimed use of the word since June 28, 1921.  


The word seems to have been well-established by the time the early Accounts of Pogo sticks in London and Paris appeared in September 1921.  If anyone has any evidence of the use of POGO in Germany (or anywhere else, for that matter), before June of 1921, let me know.  It would be nice to close the gap in the historical record.

The Pogo Craze

Regardless of who invented the Pogo stick, or where the name came from, Pogo sticks were all the rage by September of 1921:

Sketch (London), Volume 115, September 21, 1921.

But high-society Pogoing also created new social obligations that required deep thought:

Sketch (London), Volume 115, September 21, 1921.

But not everyone was cut-out to ride a pogo stick, as illustrated by these two images (the first one also shows an early predecessor of the Razor scooter):

Sketch (London), Volume 115, September 21, 1921.
Life, Volume 79, Number 2046, January 19 1922, page 6.

Well-suited, or not, New York’s health commissioner encouraged everyone to ride a Pogo stick for their health:

The craze started in London, where it also made its first appearance on stage, in The Peep Show at the Hippodrome:

Cambridge students got into the act too:

The fad also reached France:

The first Pogo sticks went on sale in the United States in September 1921:

New York Times, September 18, 1921.

Evening Public Ledger  (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), September 22, 1921.

New York Tribune, September 24, 1921.

Millye Weston was one of the first Americans to enjoy the Pogo:

When Miss Millye Westen went to Europe this  Summer she saw the kiddies there playing a new jumping game they called “Pogo.”  The game made quite a hit with Miss Weston; so she brought several Pogo sticks with her on her return and is not teaching some of her little friends the game.  The photo shows Miss Weston in Central Park, New York, demonstrating “Pogo” for the benefit of a group of youthful spectators.

Albany Evening Herald (Albany, Oregon), October 22, 1921, page 8.

Millye Weston

Within a few, short weeks, girls were racing Pogo sticks in Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolics:

In the show, each girl wore a letter-sweater representing an Ivy League, or other East Coast, school.  In late November 1921, perhaps to make up for Yale’s loss to Harvard earlier in the week (it was their only loss of the season), the woman wearing the “Y” sweater won the Pogo race:

The Yale Pogoiste may have won the race; but she soon lost the battle.

The Pogoiste and the Playboy

In 1922, the Pogo stick landed one of Florence Ziegfeld’s “Follies Girls” in hot water.

(The image looks suspiciously like a new head pasted on Millye Weston's body.)

He Said:

Student and Chorus Bride in Flight as His Brothers Plan Action on Elopement. 

“It was a case of love at second sight,” he said.  “It began last fall when the ‘Frolic’ opened.  It was in the pogo stick race.  Geneva wore a ‘Y’ sweater, and that night she won.  I went again the next night, and she slipped or something.  Anyway, she lost and I felt terribly sorry for her – you understand.  That started me.  I was with some friends who knew her, and so I met her.  You can tell the world that I’m crazy about her.

The evening world. (New York, N.Y.) 1887-1931, March 10, 1922, Final Edition, Page 2, Image 2.

She Said:

Pogo Girl Fights for Annullment

 “When I was pogoing on the stage one night, my stick broke and I fell behind the other girls.  Robert stood up in the orchestra and cheered me on.  The next day I received a letter from him asking me to meet him in a hotel lobby, and I did so.
“We went to a restaurant.  He proposed. I did not say yes or no, for I was undecided.  I saw him off and on for a week.  Then one day he came to see me on Saturday and on Sunday we were married.  I had never done that before, so I just up and did it.
The Washington Times, November 12, 1922, page 21.

“Geneva,” like her mother before her, was one of Ziegfeld’s “Follies Girl.”  She’s the one on the far right in the Pogo-girls photograph at the top of this piece; her name listed as, “Gertrude Mitchell.”  Whe was only seventeen years old.  Although she went on to have a successful stage and film career (she taught the Three Stooges how to dance, for example, in the 1935 short film Hoi Polloi), her most famous role may have been as the Pogoing temptress of the gossip columns.

“Robert” was an heir to the family steel business, The Savage Steel Company, of Duluth Minnesota.  He was not much older than Geneva at the time.  He had just dropped out during his freshman year at Yale; certain “entrance conditions” made him ineligible to participate in athletics.  Like his older brothers before him, he intended to become a football star at Yale, then a national powerhouse.  While taking classes at The Milford School, pending his readmission into Yale, he had plenty of time on his hands to romance “Follies Girls” and write poetry.  His first collection of poems was set to publish a few weeks after his elopement; perhaps his notoriety pushed up the publication date, or got him the book deal in the first place. 

For her part, although she appears to have been young and impetuous, Geneva seems to have had her priorities straight.  For his part, Robert Savage seems to have been a pretty decent fella:

“She made me promise,” Savage confessed, “that I wouldn’t let the family interfere with her career.  She’s to keep right on.  I don’t like it, but she wants to.  I want to go back to school and go to college.  The family’s having a conclave now.  I’ll do whatever they decide.
The Evening World (New York), March 10, 1922, Final Edition, Page 2.

In the end, everyone got what they wanted; the family got rid of the young interloper, and Robert Savage went back to school, became a football star, and romanced even more famous actresses like Clara Bow.  Robert’s  Savage irresistibility even lost Bow her engagement to her first love, Gilbert Roland:

“Gilbert was the first man I ever cared about,” she declared later . . . . In March of 1926 Clara announced her engagement to Roland, whom she had met when they worked together in a film called, “Plastic Age.”  Like most of Clara’s engagements, this one made headlines.

One of the reasons was a former Yale football star, Robert Savage, who also went limp every time he looked at the lovely star.

Although Clara was supposed to be Roland’s betrothed, she appeared one day with Savage at the Los Angeles marriage license bureau, announcing she and the athlete planned to wed.

The Milwaukee Journal, February 11, 1953.

She claims that it was all just a joke – and they never did, actually get a license – but it was all too much for Roland.  Although Bow’s career took off; her love life was all downhill from there.

More Pogo Craze
But the Pogo did bring only heartache – it brought joy to millions.

Children Pogoed:

Little Bo’ Peep Pogoed:

Champion Pogoists, men and women, strut their stuff:

Even tennis players pogoed:

Kangaroos were worried about losing their monopoly:

The Scranton Republican, November 1, 1921, page 15.

But eventually, everyone must have been Pogoed-out.  

Life, Volume 79, April 20, 1922, page 9.

But through it all, the mystery remained; “where did it come from?”

Exotic Origin Stories

Not content with looking through patent records, or simply asking the manufacturers where Pogo sticks came from, several “journalists” concocted more colorful origin stories for the Pogo:

The “pogo,” a modern form of the old jumping stick is the latest toy that has found favor with Parisian children and has already made its appearance in New York City.

The “pogo” was first found in use, in a primitive form, among the Dyaks of Central Borneo and it takes its name from their word for it.  It was a stick with a cross-piece on which favored young men of the tribe used to perform a ceremonial dance at sacrificial ceremonies.  The chiefs of the tribe took charge of the “pogos” between sacrifices and they were considered sacred.

A French traveler on his return from Borneo told a manufacturer of toys about the “pogo.” This manufacturer thought it would go well as a toy for children, if properly modified.  He made it up with an india rubber pad and a strong spring underneath the cross-piece.

The Watchman and Southron (Sumter, South Carolina), December 10, 1921, page 5.

Another “report” placed the origins in seventeenth-century Transylvania:

I am told that the stick itself has been in use in Transylvania since the seventeenth century.  A wandering artisan noted the difficulty that the natives of the village of Pogo had in crossing a nearby stream.  He set his brain to work on the problem and soon contrived the stick that bears the name of the town and that enabled the villagers to hop across the water with ease.  It seems that during the war some Austrian officers were quartered in the Pogo valley.  They took some of the sticks with them to Vienna, improved on the idea and soon the vogue was on all through Europe.

Printers’ Ink Monthly, volume 4, number 4, March 1922, page 34.

Even George B. Hansburg, who received his patent on the modern Pogo stick in 1957, told a “charming little story on the origin of the pogo stick” during his appearance on the television game-show, What’s My Line, in 1959:

The Pogo origin emanates from a Burmese father who had a very beautiful daughter, and they were very poor, and they had no shoes, and she had to go to temple to pray.   And having no facility to go to temple without shoes and the muddy roads that they had, her father conceived a very crude idea of transporting her to temple, and so was created a jumping device by tying a cross-piece on a stick, and thus permitting the child to jump to the temple to pray.  And her named happened to be Pogo.

George Hansburg

George Hansburg, himself, has also been the subject of numerous fabrications, misstatements, or hyperbole.  When Hansburg died in 1975, for example, The New York Times reported that Hansburg had patented  the Pogo stick in 1919; other papers gave the date, variously, as 1918 or 1908.  Other sources credit Hansburg with introducing the Pogo stick in the US, for giving the Pogo sticks to Ziegfeld’s Follies, and teaching the Follies Girls to Pogo.

The paper trail of European patents and reports of the fad taking off in London and Paris almost certainly prove that Hansburg did not invent the original Pogo stick in 1919 – or ever.  Although Hansburg received a patent in 1919, it was not for the Pogo stick; it was for toy car with a rubber-band-powered propeller motor.  He received a patent for a child’s tricycle with a sidecar in 1925, and several more patents over the years; but nothing like a Pogo stick until 1957. 

Hansburg was in the business of inventing, making and selling toys before the Pogo stick arrived in the United States, so it is possible that he may have profited from the craze, like other toy dealers.  But it seems unlikely that he was the prime-mover of the fad, as some suggest.  When he moved his manufacturing facilities from Long Island to Coudersport, Pennsylvania in 1933, his main line of goods were described as, “go-carts, baby baths, [and] strollers,” and when he sued the Coudersport Chamber of Commerce when that arrangement did not work out, his products were described primarily as, “children’s vehicles;” no specific mention of Pogo sticks.[i]

It is possible that Hansburg invented and perpetuated the myth that he invented or popularized the Pogo stick in the 1920s, as a marketing gimmick to support sales of his new-fangled Pogo sticks in the late-1950s.  Or perhaps he created and perpetuated the myth to whitewash his past; Geneva Mitchell was not the only Pogo-person with elopement problems:

Wife’s Detectives Overtake Husband.

Chicago, Sept. 8. – Lodged in jail today facing charges of wife abandonment was George B. Hansburg, toy inventor of New York.  Preparing to return to New York was Ruth Greenwald.

Hansburg was arrested here by detectives hired by his wife to follow him from New York.  Miss Greenwald, occupying a newly-furnished apartment with Hansburg, was unaware, she said, that he was married.

The Pittsburgh Press, September 8, 1919, page 12.

Despite her protestations, it seems likely that Ruth Greenwald was not as sweet and innocent as she claimed.  Shortly after she met Mr. Hansburg, she left the employ of her father’s jewelry store in the Bronx to work at a Tiffany Street jewelry shop closer to Hansburg.  Shortly thereafter, she went to work in Hansburg's toy shop as his stenographer.  For awhile, they evaded his wife’s suspicions using an elaborate system in which his employees used various signals to alert them when his wife came to visit and when the coast was clear.

But despite the precautions, his wife eventually learned the truth.  They reconciled, but it didn’t last.  To get out of his predicament, Hansburg told his partner that he was going on vacation, told his wife that that he has been swindled out of $5000 and was going to Chicago to get a fresh start, put $200 down on a $2000 car (he never made another payment), and skipped town.  He met Ruthie in Chicago, where she and her aunt were waiting for him at the Palmer House.

If Hansburg did profit from the Pogo-craze of 1921/22, then it came along just in time.  He needed the money; stealing cars and abandoning his wife and two children seems to have landed him in financial difficulty:

New York Tribune, July 28, 1920, page 17.

New York Tribune, July 20, 1921, page 16.

He eventually turned his fortunes around to become a long-time, successful businessman.  Whether he invented the Pogo stick or not, he at least deserves credit for bouncing back.


Whether English, American, German, or a little of each, the Pogo stick swept the world in 1921/1922 only to disappear again for a few decades; until George Hansburg revived it again in the late 1950s.  After a brief resurgence, it faded away again into relative obscurity. 

In recent years, in the wake of a new wave of “extreme sports,” Hansburg’s old company, Flybar, and upstarts like Vurtego, are now pushing the limits of extreme pogo technology; big air, big tricks, and big sticks – all requiring big . . . .

. . . courage.

[i] The Kane Republican (Kane, Pennsylvania), March 31, 1933, page 2; The Scranton Republican (Scranton, Pennsylvania), February 1, 1935, page 3.

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