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.
Play Stuff Blog
As a cycling enthusiast, I was a thrill to see a velocipede—an early form of bicycle—in the conservation lab. Pierre Lallement and Pierre Michaux patented the design for the velocipede in 1866 before Lallement moved to New Haven, Connecticut, and made improvements to the velocipede on his own. He also gave license to American bike-builders for variations of the velocipede. These early wheelmen obsessed over different ways to power a bicycle—steam, electricity, or dog-powered locomotion.
Most velocipedes haven’t survived. They were melted down as scrap metal during war efforts. When I examined this 1870 example, I marveled at how heavy and unwieldy it was. It would have been very difficult to balance when in motion. Even standing still on its mount, the velocipede was inclined to topple over. Preventing the velocipede from being unstable in its display mount was the primary goal of conservation treatment. A new mount would support the axles, but the weight of the frame needed to be balanced and stable.
In contrast to feather-light alloy bicycle frames today, the velocipede in The Strong’s collection has a bevel-edge backbone made of heavy forged iron, with bold pinstriping on its front fork. A bracket attaches the metal seat to the curved backbone and the arched wrought iron handlebars terminate in a square taper at each end, lacking grips would have been made of turned wood. Typical of velocipedes, the wheels have wood hubs and staggered spokes, which were painted at one time, before the paint flaked and the wood aged and split. The metal tires are bolted and screwed to the wood rims.
When I first looked at the velocipede in the conservation lab, it showed signs of having been ridden through mud and dirt. The rider had shaken the joints loose, as one would expect of a “boneshaker” with metal tires and no spring-loaded mechanisms to soften the vibrations of cobblestone, dirt, and grassy paths. The steering column, triangular brace, and front fork flexed in all directions against the backbone. There were no modern bearings or bushings in the steering assemblage, just hard iron against soft brass with a little grease applied. I could imagine what a rough, shaky ride this would have been. Even scarier is that there are no brakes. Slowing would have been accomplished by pedaling backwards against the dir ect-drive cranks on the front wheel axle. Early bicycles sometimes used “spoon” brakes that were rod-actuated to put pressure on the rim or tire to slow down. Another possible way of braking was to lean back in a spring-loaded saddle, causing a brake to engage on the rear wheel.
The velocipede’s steering assemblage needed to be adjusted to prevent stress on the frame and brass steering tube. The steering assemblage was difficult to loosen or tighten without cleaning, so the parts were removed for cleaning. All spacers, tube, and parts were cleaned in a vibratory tumbler with walnut shell pieces followed by a round in an ultrasonic cl eaner. After cleaning, the "166" inscription was more visible. Original parts that were brass were usually highly polished when they were made although the years of grime and grease had turned the brass carbon black.
The velocipede exhibited extensive metal corrosion overall. In the same way that a well-loved cast iron skillet builds a resilient surface, the iron frame had developed an appealing patina that I did not want to disturb. So I lightly cleaned the cast iron, sufficient to remove embedded grime, grease, and corrosion on the axles, pedal spindles, and steering tube while maintaining the patina. This cleaning would help prevent dust from sticking to any residual grease.
The paint pinstriping on the wood wheel rims and the iron forks and frame was revealed after I removed the grime. Bright gold heavy pinstriping was typical of velocipedes and might have been applied by carriage painters of the 19th century. Barely legible inscriptions on the frame indicate the bike’s maker, Larkin of Portland, Maine.
In the late 19th century, cycling invention moved quickly, producing dozens of patents for bicycles, velocipedes, monocoques, tricycles, and other amusements. The designs r ange from practical examples we still recognize today to absurd machines that look like something from a Doctor Seuss book.
I find it interesting to see which bike ideas caught on and which did not. As high-wheeled penny farthings took the place of velocipedes, riders enjoyed being as high as horse-drawn carriages. With such height came increased risk of losing one’s balance. Mark Twain advised “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live,” after his attempts to learn to ride a penny farthing, in Taming the Bicycle. I am pleased that conservation treatment tamed the velocipede’s bad case of “the Wobbles” as Twain called it. The velocipede is now on exhibit in One History Place, where you can step into the past and experience life like it was more than a century ago.
The National Toy Hall of Fame is awash in good news these days. On November 5, 2015, The Strong announced that Super Soaker—along with puppets and the game Twister—joined the 56 classic toys in the hall of fame. Kids had water toys before the Super Soaker debuted in 1990, but the drenching machine altered the ways they played outdoors.
“All right, play time is over; it’s time to get your head in the game,” my friend Lauren sternly implores our team. We’ve been through six rounds. By our calculations, we must only be behind our chief rivals by a few points. Our highly competitive team has its regular starting line-up this week, and we haven’t sustained any major injuries (yet). This isn’t an outdoor team sport or your ordinary parlor game, however—this is serious business. This is weekly pub trivia. For as long as I can remember, I liked collecting facts.
An interesting dynamic exists between work and play. In my last blog, I discussed how domestic chores can be play. The work versus play issue came to mind recently since so much of what I do in my current job is playing (just don’t tell my boss that). When it comes to a career, I never thought I would be someone who liked their job. It was called work for a reason.
As a child, I always enjoyed playing video games, but I never paid too much attention to the musical accompaniment in the background. It wasn’t until college that I first heard gaming music on its own. Prior to that, I simply enjoyed the music as background noise for games, or as musical cues that prompted me to “jump” or dodge an enemy.
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.
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!
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.
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.