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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.

A Flick of the Wrist: Flying Discs and Frisbees

Wham-O Mfg. Co. trade catalog Have you ever had a day when you just want to throw something? Well, it’s probably optimal if you choose an object that is meant to be thrown. Playthings such as softballs, paper airplanes, water balloons, and Frisbees count among the items which get the go-ahead for a wind-up and release. As I mentioned in a previous blog about toys people throw, “Sometimes I like to throw for distance and speed, other times for accuracy. Trajectory, body mechanics, kinetic energy, and velocity are part of the formula. Those factors (combined with other variables) determine how far you can throw something, what direction it will take, and how fast it will go.” Although flying discs and Frisbees are objects that you more-or-less “flick and fling,” relying heavily upon wrist motion, I categorize them as “throw toys” and they rank among my favorite things to heave.

When and how did flying discs and Frisbees originate? Predecessors of the modern Frisbee were predominantly made of metal and can be traced back several centuries to the first Olympic Games in Greece in 708 BC when discus throwing was part of a pentathlon event. Later, in 2nd-century BC India, warriors used a disc with sharpened outer edges, called a chakram, as both a throwing weapon and a hand-to-hand combat tool. In the 14th century, a horseshoe-like game, quoits, appeared in England as early as 1388. Simply a ring tossed over a stick target, quoits remains still popular among sporting clubs in England and the U.S.

Pie pan Frisbie Pie Company The success of marketing flying metal playthings in the United States can be attributed to Fred and Lu Morrison. According to his book, Flat Flip Flies Straight!, Fred Morrison states that he and his then-girlfriend Lu first started tossing around a popcorn can lid over the Thanksgiving holiday in 1937. Within a year, they had graduated from throwing popcorn can lids to pie pans, and then from pie pans to cake pans! While flinging around a cake pan on a southern California beach in 1938, Fred and Lu were offered 25 cents for their 5 cent pan, resulting in an instant profit. That first unintentional sale served as the catalyst for a toy that would eventually become a household name—the Frisbee.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Fred and Lu continued to sell cake pans as flying objects and often demonstrated their gyroscopic and gliding techniques on various southern California beaches. After enlisting in the Air Force and serving as a World War II pilot, Morrison returned home to California, still interested in selling flying discs to consumers. Facing limitations on the use of metal as the result of World War II, Morrison investigated the idea of creating a flying disc made solely out of a relatively new type of material: plastic. By 1948, Morrison and his business partner, Warren Franscioni, formed the PIPCO company and manufactured the first flying discs made from plastic that they named the Flyin-Saucer.  

Flying disc A few years later, Morrison and Franscioni parted ways, but Morrison continued to produce his own version of a flying disc called a Pluto Platter. In January 1957, Morrison sold the rights for the Pluto Platter to Wham-O Mfg. Co.; by June of that year Wham-O co-founder Richard Knerr renamed and trademarked the saucers as “Frisbees.” Knerr thought it would be a good idea to use a name with which people were already familiar, since Yale University students had been tossing around empty Frisbie Pie Company pans on campus for years, and young people in the Northeast were already using the term “frisbie” to describe these flying discs. In 1964, Wham-O’s general manager and VP of Marketing, Ed Headrick, helped popularize the Frisbee by making slight design modifications and assisted in forming disc golf leagues that promoted Frisbee as a sport and not just a recreational leisure activity. In 1967, another flying disc game, Ultimate, caught on, and enthusiasts continue to play the two sports all over the world today.

 Wham-O Manufacturing Company trade catalog Although Frisbee is a registered trademark and brand name, most people refer to all solid, flat flying discs as “Frisbees.” (The term “Frisbee” has become genericized in much the same way that people refer to photocopiers as “Xerox machines” and facial tissues as “Kleenex.”) However, as the result of its longevity, popularity, and household name status, the Frisbee was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998.

On a nice, warm summer day, I still love throwing Frisbees (and other flying discs) with my friends,  playing a friendly game of KanJam, or throwing it freestyle while showing off some of our best moves. I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of these aerodynamically sound, perfe  ctly round pieces of plastic.

The Williams Pinball Playfield Design Collection

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Reader Beware—You’re in for a Scare!

Childhood is sometimes punctuated with brief but potent moments of blinding fear. Children often have imaginations that run amok and dark, isolated places are perceived as settings of unspeakable horrors that must be avoided at all costs. Kids can convince themselves (and some of us, even as adults, are still convinced) that horrible creatures await in the basement to snatch an unsuspecting victim; that vengeful ghosts haunt dark hallways; and hideous monsters hide under the bed, preparing to grab the next set of feet that come too close.

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Let There Be Light

What do you get when you take a grand Victorian mansion, all of its ornately detailed furnishings, wallpaper, wooden flooring, and inhabitants (including pets!), and shrink them down to 1/12 their natural size? Well, a dollhouse, of course!

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Go Greyhound!

From my childhood, I seem to recall an early TV advertising ditty that ended with: “Lucky us in a Greyhound bus!” Growing up in a village too small for Greyhound service, my introduction to the transportation line came from ads in magazines, newspapers, and television and from glimpses of Greyhound buses in movies, songs, and popular culture.

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Paul Sams Collection Showcases Influence and History of Blizzard Entertainment

Paul Sams, former Chief Operating Officer at the American video game developer and publisher Blizzard Entertainment, has donated a collection that traces the history of the company and highlights the importance of its games.

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Art and Creativity with Lite-Brite

What is it about light that makes it so appealing as an element of play? One of my recent blogs focused upon glow-in-the-dark toys that use phosphors and a form of light emission known as photoluminescence to provide a familiar greenish glow.

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Work vs. Play: When a Chore is Not a Chore

In preparation for purchasing my daughter’s second birthday present, I polled my parent-friends to see what was the one toy their kids couldn’t live without.

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No Imitation Game: The Alan Turing Edition Monopoly

The list of Academy Award nominees for 2015

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Star Wars and Atari: Documentation of a Classic Arcade Game

Earlier this year, I joined The Strong to perform a truly exciting job: process the recently acquired Atari Coin-Op Division Collection.

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Hand-Drawn Animation: From Cartoons to Video Games

The introduction of Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI)—the application of computer graphics

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