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The Hacky Sack footbag fad of the 1980’s

Footbag World cover photo

Hacky Sacks, or footbags, were popular with youth in the United States during the 1980’s. During the peak of the fad, several million Hacky Sack footbags were sold each year. Surprisingly, the Hacky Sack had been invented nearly a decade earlier and footbags in general have been enjoyed by the public for many centuries.

Hack Sack Footbag Introduction

Oficial Hacky Sack footbag

Early Hacky Sack footbags were constructed with heavy fabric material.  Later, cowhide leather was used to produce a more durable footbag (albeit, more difficult to break in). The leather was sewn together to join multiple panels, similar to the construction of a soccer ball.

In 1981, crocheted foot-bags (called granny sacks, because they were handsewn) were introduced.  Unlike leather footbags, crocheted footbags required no break in period.  Later, additional materials were utilized to construct the bags. Ultra-suede, which does not require the same kind of break-in period that leather footbags do, was a huge breakthrough in construction materials. Other materials used to skin the footbag included vinyl, water buffalo skin, snakeskin, kangaroo skin, and pigskin.  Footbags are usually filled with plastic pellets but have been filled with other materials like cherry pits or even heavier weighted sand.

Early footbags in history

Crotchet Hacky Sack footbag

Footbags have been in use in countries around the world for thousands of years. Chinese Imperial guards used hair filled footbags as a means to keep soldiers awake during long night watches.  A similar object was used by Chinese soldiers in 2597 B.C. to help develop and hone the soldiers’ agility and balance.

Native American Indians employed the footbag in several tribal games and competitions.  In Malaysia, the national sport, “sepak takraw” requires use of a bamboo or light plastic footbag.

And in Japan, the Kemari footbag game first appeared amongst Japanese nobleman around 1,400 years ago.  As with most footbag games, the objective in the Japanese Kemari footbag game was to keep a small deerskin ball in the air for as long as possible without allowing the footbag to touch the ground.  Similar sports have been played in Myanmar, Korea, Philippines and Singapore for centuries.

Invention of Hacky Sack

Hacky Sack Styler Original 2-panel model in package

Mike Marshall and John Stalberger, a stocky, athletic Texan with a funny accent, had been friends for several years when Stalberger suffered a devastating knee injury in 1972 in their hometown of Oregon City, Oregon.  Stalberger grew impatient with his slow recovery and sought a means to rehabilitate the knee more quickly.  Marshall remembered a footbag like object he had seen on a recent trip to Asia and recommended it as a means to exercise Stalberger’s knee.  Marshall and Stalberger took an old sock and stuffed it with dried corn, then tied off the end.  They played for hours trying to keep the “footbag” aloft, using only their feet, while not allowing it to touch the ground.  They called the game, “hacking the sack”.

The unequal balance of the sock footbag made the game too difficult so Marshall and Stalberger experimented with other methods of construction.  Finally settling on a denim sewn beanbag filled with rice, the two friends spent hours playing in Mike Marshall’s basement.  They became quite good and soon introduced various tricks and kicking “moves”.  It was not long before they recognized the opportunity to expand the newly discovered sport.  They began promoting footbags to schools and sporting goods stores in the local Portland, Oregon area.

As Stalberger explained in an Oregonian news report,

“Actually, that’s what made us good because we played in a basement where the ceiling was low, and we had to learn how to control the footbag. We would more or less dream about how we were going to make this sport big.”

Their footbag was well received and began to gain popularity throughout the Oregon area.

Hacky Sack fad begins

Hot New Game Hacky Sack advertisement

In 1975, at the age of 28, Marshall died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Stalberger continued to market the Hacky Sack and sales soon picked up. He patented the Hacky Sack in 1979, naming it after the “hacking the sack” game that he and Marshall played in their basement.

In 1983, Stalberger sold the rights for the Hacky Sack® Footbag to Kransco (operating under the Wham-O label) for $1.5 million.  Wham-O, notable for taking fringe sports and moving them to the mainstream public, moved manufacturing of the Hack Sacks to Taiwan and was able to use its influence to get the product into major chain stores.  By the end of the 1980’s, the Hacky Sack was a familiar sight at playgrounds, parks, and rock concerts.

Jan Weber, World and European Footbag champion

Image Credits

Crotchet Hacky Sack footbag via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Creative Commons License. March 14, 2007
Oficial Hacky Sack footbag via Anjar with usage type - Product photo (Fair Use)
Hacky Sack Styler Original 2-panel model in package via Anjar by Wham-O with usage type - Product photo (Fair Use)
Hot New Game Hacky Sack advertisement via Pinterest with usage type - Product photo (Fair Use)
Footbag World cover photo via Kick Toys
Jan Weber, World and European Footbag champion via Wikipedia Commons by Jan Weber with usage type - Creative Commons License. December 12, 2011

Featured Image Credit

Footbag World cover photo via Kick Toys
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