These familiar words have been used, in some form, through centuries of storytelling. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the phrase dates to at least 1380, while Wikipedia states that “it seems to have become a widely accepted convention for opening oral narratives by around 1600.” For a long, long time then, these four words have led us, usually first and most often as children, into a tale about a beautiful place far, far away. Many a fable or folktale has begun with them. The phrase “once upon a time” serves as a useful storytelling convention, which connects readers to places that cannot—or can no longer—be experienced in the flesh.
“Once upon a time” can help us connect to our memories by guiding us back in our minds, in a very personal way, to a past time, period, or experience that we must not let ourselves or others forget. I’d be willing to wager that many of you have used these words in this way, not to tell a fanciful story, but rather as a familiar way to help steer your mind back to a previous time in your lives, when things seemed somehow better—more serene, comfortable, or pleasant. Like the historical objects that we collect, cherish, preserve, and present here at Strong National Museum of Play, these few words can also help link us directly to our collective past by stimulating our memories. Usually these memories come embellished with romantic notions that alter them somewhat with emotion and imagination. This is a good thing, because it enhances them in personal and transcendental ways. They help us reach a comfortable balance between empirical fact—what really happened—and the experiences we remember. For instance, I could have easily led off my first two blogs—each of which concerned my indebtedness to my grandparents—with the words “once upon a time.” The memories I have of my grandparents enable me to relive those happy childhood times with them in my mind whenever I wish to; they will always remain entrenched in my adult being. Even at my age, writing those thoughts down evoked heartfelt emotion. And I found myself wondering, did things really happen as I want to remember them? Somehow, it all seems like a fairy tale now. But the reality is they did indeed happen that way; those experiences helped me live happily ever after ever since. These are the very stories that we must preserve, along with the artifacts that yesterday helped create them, and today help trigger them. For they contain not only fact, color, and drama but—most importantly—our humanity. Our memories link us to each other, to our legacy; however stimulated or embellished, they reflect the emotion of our experience. They enable us to ponder our lives in healthy ways, while helping us maintain a proper perspective on the present and our thoughts of the future. Soon, the museum will be embarking on a very important project—collecting play histories, the firsthand recollections and stories that will help bring our collections objects to life. This new information will certainly create a deeper dimension to the meaning of play for us all. So start preparing your favorite tale now. We want to add it to our database. Or should I say, “Play-ta-base?”