Magic Slate, Stretch Armstrong, and Toys that Make You Go Hmmm…

I’ve always been curious about how things work. I’ve been known to take things apart and put them back together, just to see if I can. Sometimes tools are involved, sometimes not. Over the years, my scientific explorations have taken me inside the workings of telephones, electronics, vacuum cleaners, and toys—especially toys. Looking back, it seems that I spent more time as a child examining how toys were manufactured and how they functioned than I did playing with them.

One of the earliest toys I can recall dismantling was the Magic Slate. A relatively simple product, the Magic Slate was a reusable drawing pad consisting of a cardboard backing with a black wax-like surface and an opaque plastic sheet on top. You used a plastic stylus to draw on the flexible sheet, but what really fascinated me was the ability to “erase” my drawing just by lifting the plastic sheet (with an accompanying and unique crackling sound). Where did my drawing go? Into thin air? It didn’t take me long to realize that my image was now embedded into the waxy black surface along with dozens of other drawings I’d created—a “superimposed work of art,” if you will. With the plastic sheet pulled away from the backing, the black lines I’d created vanished, and the Magic Slate was ready for new artwork.

Another changeable toy that intrigued me was Stretch Armstrong. You could squeeze Stretch, pull him in all directions, and twist him up into various poses. Challenging you to push him to his limits, Stretch Armstrong seemed tough and durable. However, every now and then, when Stretch was played with a little too roughly, a small tear would develop, usually in a limb. Then aspiring material scientists like me could witness a gelatinous substance emerging from the rubberized figure. The secret of Stretch’s stretchiness was revealed! I must not have been alone in my curiosity about what was inside Stretch Armstrong. Judging from the evidence of eBay listings, not that many Stretch Armstrong examples have survived the test of time, making intact copies pricey collectibles today.  Oh, and the gelatinous substance he was filled with? Corn syrup.

Some other toys that inspired my curiosity have included classics represented in the collections of  the National Museum of Play at The Strong, such as Etch A Sketch, Magic Pouring Perk, Rubik’s Cube, Easy-Bake Oven, View-Master, Digital Derby, and the barn door that “moos” on the Fisher-Price Play Family Farm. Even though my childhood investigations into the way toys worked didn’t lead into a career as an engineer or a detective, I still enjoyed every minute of my playful explorations and I can’t wait to check out the upcoming Stretch Armstrong movie to find out more about his “inside story.”