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The Greatest Toy Never Sold

Not every Hall of Fame toy comes from a store. Take the cardboard box, for instance. No company advertises it. Parents don’t line up for it during the holiday shopping season. No one sings its jingle. It costs nothing. Yet the cardboard box offers the imagination a feast. With crayons and tempera paint, you can turn the cardboard box into an ocean liner, a space ship, a dragster, a covered wagon, a submarine, or a castle.

Photograph, 2006, from the collection of Strong National Museum of Play, gift of Alan and Carol Montante

The toy’s endorsers include such luminaries as Dr. Benjamin Spock and Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Spock, the world’s most famous baby doctor, reminded parents that with a little imagination, a cardboard box could become a farm, a town, or a doll’s house. As a young girl, the future American Secretary of State decorated a cardboard box and made it the centerpiece of a fantasy kingdom that she built—mirrors stood in for lakes, twigs became trees. For her, as for millions of others, this toy is pure improv. First you think outside the box and then you play in it. Kids have staged a zillion plays from cardboard boxes. They learn more from this scrap than they do from most other toys. And when the cardboard box is dog-eared and trampled, it will slide like a sled down dry grass on a steep slope. Who cares when it’s used up? You rescued the toy from the recycler in the first place. This disposable toy will be with us forever.