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She Was Betrayed by a Gentleman’s Handshake

Mar 25, 2019 | 831 videos
Video by Chris Riess and Amy Hill

The history of invention is littered with men who took credit for women’s ideas. Take Monopoly, for example: As the story goes, an unemployed man named Charles Darrow invented the beloved American board game in the 1930s, sold it, and became a millionaire. All of that happened, except the part where he invented the game. In reality, a woman named Elizabeth Magie Phillips, who has been described as “bold and progressive,” designed the Landlord’s Game—a critique of monopolists of her time, such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller—three decades before Darrow sold Monopoly, nearly a carbon copy of her original.

Joan Anderson, 94, has a similar story to tell. In Chris Riess and Amy Hill’s short documentary Hula Girl, premiering on The Atlantic today, Anderson finally gets the chance to set the record straight about the history of the enormously popular fad she brought to the United States from Australia.

It all boils down to the betrayal of a gentleman’s handshake. In 1958, Anderson, a native Australian, visited her homeland on vacation. On the beach, lots of people were playing with a device they referred to casually as “the hoop,” a circle made of bamboo that they twirled around on their hips. Anderson brought one back to her husband, and they decided it would be a great idea to market stateside. She began calling the toy the “hula hoop.” Anderson’s husband consulted Arthur Melin, a business acquaintance, about partnering with Melin’s company, Wham-O, one of the biggest toy manufacturers at the time, to market and distribute the hoop. Melin thought it was a brilliant idea.

But then he took the idea and ran with it. Until his death, Melin maintained that he had invented the Hula-Hoop as Americans today know it. In the film, Anderson explains that because she and her husband failed to patent the device, they lost the lawsuit they filed against the Wham-O Corporation after the Hula-Hoop became enormously successful. “We were very naive as far as doing business with a company and giving over a product that made them millions of dollars,” she says.

Yet Anderson doesn’t hold a serious grudge against the man who robbed her of a potential fortune. “The world isn’t fair, but life goes on,” she says. “You win some, you lose some. I’ve had a great life … Happiness is definitely the best revenge.”

Riess and Hill told me that they were happy to give Anderson the platform to tell her story. “The most rewarding part of our year was seeing Joan finally get the much-deserved credit that we feel was due to her … but ultimately, family and love made the choice between being resentful and living a good life pretty easy.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.