The Frisbee: Spinning the Truth

Some tall tales are so pleasing that you wish they were true. Not the kind that are just mistakes, like believing that John F. Kennedy was a gifted ventriloquist or that Shania Twain is Mark Twain’s great grand-daughter. I’m talking about plausible old yarns like the one about the young George Washington fessing-up to cutting down the cherry tree. The story isn’t true, but generations of Americans thought it should have been because it fit our Founding Father’s virtues so well.

Frisbee, Wham-O, 1959, from the collection of Strong National Museum of PlayHere’s one about the origin of the Frisbee that has a ring of truth, or to use Merriam-Webster’s 2006 word of the year, “truthiness.” This legend began in 1827 when students gathered to protest Yale’s compulsory religious services. One of these truants, so the story goes, was the notable Elihu Frisbie, and when he defiantly sailed a collection plate a prodigious two hundred feet across the green, the Frisbee was born.

It’s easy to believe this tale because

  1. Our New England roots are set deep in religious dissent;
  2. students then and now have a leaning toward “tumult;” and
  3. “Elihu Frisbie” is a name that sounds like it might well belong to the seventh son of the seventh son of the original Puritan colonist.

Photograph, ca. 2005, from the collection of Strong National Museum of PlaySpun this way, the tale—about a flying object tossed at a great moment—carries the essential elements of the Frisbee’s story: invention, a whiff of mischief, and spontaneous play. It’s like the Washington fable or one of the many tall, thin tales you hear about Abe Lincoln. You’d like to believe them. Alas, this one is too good to be true. No such hero as Elihu Frisbie ever attended Yale. Instead, we can trace this myth to a students’ prank letter to the New York Times, exactly 130 years later, in 1957. You can read more truthy and true stories about the Frisbee in Classic Toys of the National Toy Hall of Fame.