Play Stuff Blog

The Strong’s historians, curators, librarians, and other staff offer insights into and anecdotes about the critical role of play in human development and the ways in which toys, dolls, games, and video games reflect cultural history. Learn even more about the museum’s archival materials, books, catalogs, and other ephemera through its Tumblr page.

“It’s Time to Light the Lights”—Spotlight on Bonnie Erickson


The Muppet Show Board Game of the Stars, Parker Brothers, 1979

It’s quite likely that you’re already familiar with the creations of artist and designer Bonnie Erickson. If you’ve ever watched or played with the Muppets or if you’ve memorized all of the North American professional sports mascots, then you’ve already admired Erickson’s handiwork. She is best known for creating the iconic Muppet characters Miss Piggy, Statler, and Waldorf, as well as professional league mascots Phillie Phanatic (MLB’s Philadelphia Phillies) and Youppi! (currently with the NHL’s Montréal Canadiens), among others.

In 1970, Bonnie Erickson joined Jim Henson’s Muppet workshop as a costume designer. Within a few years, she had already designed and built several new Muppet characters, including Miss Piggy. Erickson and her husband Wayde Harrison launched their own production, design, and marketing company called Harrison/Erickson, Inc. in 1977. Together, Harrison and Erickson created characters for commercials, theater, and sports mascots. Erickson continued to consult on projects for the Jim Henson Company and Children’s Television Workshop (later, Sesame Workshop). She also developed toy and other product design concepts for licensed brands, such as Sesame Street and The Muppet Show.

Plaster prototype of Miss Piggy vase, about 1978

Two years after the passing of Jim Henson, his widow Jane and several of Jim’s colleagues (Arthur Novell, Albert Gottesman, and Richard Wedemeyer) formed The Jim Henson Legacy. This organization dedicated itself to preserving and perpetuating Henson’s contributions to the worlds of puppetry, television, motion pictures, special effects, and media technology. Erickson joined the foundation as a trustee, and later, president; she also served as the executive director of the organization from 2010-2014. In 2016, Erickson coordinated a large donation which established the Jim Henson Collection here at The Strong (a portion of which was exhibited for thousands of museum visitors to enjoy).

Pages from Sesame Street style guide, “Character Book featuring Jim Henson’s Muppets,” 1979.

Erickson has also generously contributed a variety of materials from her own celebrated career to The Strong. The Strong’s archives house the Bonnie Erickson papers, a compilation of design concepts, illustrations, style guides, product tear sheets, catalog pages, notes, publicity, and other information relating to licensed products created by Erickson. The museum’s object collections include prototypes and production copies of her dolls, figurines, clothing, and collectibles. These materials encompass not only the Muppets and Sesame Street stars, but also characters from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and other original creations (such as a Bette Midler mermaid doll!). Viewing Erickson’s papers and prototypes together is a great way to learn about the toy design process from start to finish. Next time you catch a glimpse of Miss Piggy (or the Phillie Phanatic) on television, take a minute to think about the woman behind these distinctive characters—her own career deserves some time in the spotlight!  


Happy Easy-Bake Oven Day!

Although I sometimes roll my eyes at the new commemorative “holidays” that get added to the calendar, I’m actually delighted to see that November 4, 2017 has been declared the first annual National Easy-Bake Oven Day. I can’t promise that I’ll be sending greeting cards to my friends and family to honor the occasion, but it’s good to know that one of the classic toys in the National Toy Hall of Fame is drawing renewed attention—naturally by way of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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What Makes a Game Classic? My Buddy Plays Mahjong

What makes a game classic? Part of the answer is longevity. Most people consider chess classic; we’ve played it for centuries. What about playing cards? Woodblock-printed cards appeared during China’s Tang dynasty (618–907), while written rules for card games were first seen in15th-century Europe. Another characteristic of classic games is continued popularity. Games such as Monopoly in the 1930s and Scrabble during the 1950s broke sales records at first. But they continued to sell in the years that followed and do so today.

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Playthings and Intellectual Property

I was a visiting Research Fellow at The Strong museum in July 2017. While at the museum, I researched the history of the toy industry, focusing on the ways in which the main trade journal, Playthings, represented the struggles of different companies to capitalize on the different opportunities the market offered to them. In doing so, I traced the links between intellectual property law and the making of the U.S. toy industry in the early 20th century.

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What Goes Around, Comes Around

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Preserving the First Video Game Merchandising Display Unit

Reading reports about some retail store closings, it’s hard to ignore that many of us often prefer shopping online with millions of products at our fingertips to navigating a shopping cart through the aisles of our local retailers.

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The Picnic Tradition: Playing Together and Staying Together

Labor Day weekend will be filled with the lighting of grills, the balancing of over-filled paper plates on knees, and the splashing of feet in lakes and pools. It’s prime picnic time in America! People have been picnicking for more than 500 years. The French term “pique-nique” first appeared in print in 1694, referring to an indoor, potluck-type affair. Outdoor dining most likely has its roots medieval hunting feasts as documented in paintings and tapestries from the period, and the French term was adopted and adapted by the British to refer these outdoor affairs.

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“Are you a child or a teetotum?” a creature asks Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871). The bewildered Alice can’t think what to say in reply. Spun from one mad adventure to another, she might well resemble the iconic “teetotum,” or spinning top, that was used in 19th-century board games.

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The Myth of the Magical Summer: The Tropes, Transformations, and Transitions of American Childhood

“Summer just opens the door and lets you out." Deb Caletti, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart The front of a school building shimmers in the sun. A loud bell rings. The doors burst open and a flood of children spills out, cheering and tossing papers into the air. This image, used to the point of cliché, signals the start of summer and the freedom (albeit temporary) from the restrictions of school, the expectations of parents, and the anxieties of peer relations. In those precious ten weeks, an awkward misfit can shed his skin and emerge a swan, a hero, or a man.

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Rack ‘Em Up

I grew up in a small town with a population of roughly 5,000. It may not look it now, but it was once booming with activity and businesses. A basket factory and a canning factory ranked among the major employers. Then the train quit making stops in town. Without convenient access to supplies, factories slowly closed and the population dwindled. But what became of the train station and the hotel attached to it? That is a key part of my childhood.

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Preserving Carol Shaw’s Trailblazing Video Game Career

Carol Shaw, the first widely recognized female game designer and programmer, has donated to The Strong a collection of console games, printed source code, design documents, sketches, reference materials, and promotional objects representing games she created for Atari, Inc.

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