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.

Colorful Chemistry Sets

Chemcraft Set One, box lid, The Strong, Rochester, New YorkJohn and Harold Porter created their first chemistry set in 1915 after seeing the popularity of A. C. Gilbert's Erector Set. In 1920, Gilbert made his Gilbert chemistry outfit, with the clear intention of encouraging boys to become chemists. In the 19th century, chemistry sets were practical kits made for school use. Savvy teachers have known for years that chemistry classes become memorable when a molecule is put in context. For instance, sodium thiosulfate solution can be used to clean and polish silver. Chemistry sets for children focused on applications of science to daily life, adapting as the context changed from the 1920s industrial chemistry to the mid-century atomic energy focus on splitting atoms. Packaging of 1950s chemistry sets featured rockets, submarines, and satellites as science moved from the atomic age to the space age. While the images in advertisements and packaging show children doing experiments, some marketing targeted parents who hoped that their child would become a scientist. Porter Chemcraft sets boasted a tagline, "Experimenter Today ... Scientist Tomorrow."

Chemcraft Set One advertisement, booklet, The Strong, Rochester, New York

A recent acquisition of a 1920s Porter Chemcraft set has a box with colorful illustrations of children playing at experiments with a moon visible through the window. This chemistry set, Number 1 in a series, would have sold for one dollar in the 1920s. The earliest Porter Chemcraft sets were sold in cardboard boxes. Later chemistry sets used wooden or metal cases. Inside the Chemcraft set are glass test tubes, a spoon, stirring rods, and several wood containers with labels describing their contents: sulfur, sodium carbonate, sodium ferrocyanide, aluminum sulfate, tannic acid, sodium thiosulfate, logwood, and powdered iron metal. The accompanying booklet describes experiments "any boy or girl can perform with this outfit." Children could use the Chemcraft set to make vinegar, use purple hollyhocks as acid-base color indicator, separate gluten from flour, or make magic ink in a Prussian blue color.  

Chemcraft Set One, detail of chemical deterioration, The Strong, Rochester, New York ​Inside the 1920s Chemcraft set, I found the contents of the small wooden containers swelled with humidity and expanded. The chemicals had spilled inside the cardboard box tray and insert, damaging paper in a variety of ways. Some chemicals reacted with the acidic cardboard, leaving white crystals on the surface and swelling the cardboard to a weak and fragile state. Other chemicals mixed together in the bottom of the box tray, creating an array  ​ of colorful stains in brown, black, white, Prussian blue, pale yellow, and rust. Even with the set's original experiment booklet and some chemistry knowledge, it is hard to guess what has mixed or reacted inside the box. Some of the reactants had turned into their hydrated form after years in humid storage. I considered a matrix of reactions between any of the chemicals with any other chemical in the box.

Chemcraft Set One, box tray interior, The Strong, Rochester, New YorkSodium ferrocyanide in the chemistry set is also known as "Yellow Prussiate of Soda" in older chemical nomenclature, but the contents of the sodium ferrocyanide container have degraded to a faint blue after nearly a century in storage. Ferro cyanides are less toxic than other cyanide groups, but can react with acids to produce toxic cyanide gas. After nearly a hundred years, the cardboard box is deteriorating and acidic. Conservation treatment of the Chemcraft set aims to make the box free of hazards to people, prevent any noxious chemical off-gassing if placed on display, and reduce further c  ​hemical degradation of all the contents and the cardboard box. Approaching it with caution, I am slowly cleaning away the stains and chemical residues a little at a time.

Chemcraft Set One, booklet (verso), The Strong, Rochester, New York

​Today's young scientist can play with Thames and Kosmos chemistry sets. Some popular science experiments are more impromptu. The Internet has dozens of recipes for "slime," a product made using easily accessible household chemicals. The polyvinyl acetate and borax gel recipe is similar to recipes for conservation cleaning gels that remove stains from paper. Conservators use gel to suspend a cleaning agent and prevent direct contact of artifacts with water or solvent. Kids use their slimy gels to experiment with mixing ingredients and entertain with sensory play. Elmer's white glue experienced a shortage last year during the peak of slime-mania. Parents of slime-makers notice their contact lens solution disappear as kids raid the house for slime supplies. Just like experimenters today, the young experimenters of the 1920s probably snuck into the pantry for an egg and vinegar to try Chemcraft's "Experiment 122: Elastic Eggs." Experimenting with household chemistry is a timeless way to play.

 

Nerf Ball

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Chris Kohler Fanzine Collection Documents Video Game Culture

In addition to collecting video and other electronic games and materials that document how these games are made and sold, the staff at The Strong's International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG) is also interested in preserving evidence of player culture.

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The Eyes Have It

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Would Girls Like It? Why Atari's Market Testing Failed to Produce a Female Audience

Video games have a common—and increasingly outdated—image of appealing primarily to males. This misperception is perhaps due to the tendency of the media to focus on the “triple A” market—high-budget games, produced by established game corporations, that highlight violence and sex to appeal to a straight, male audience. At least one company, however, was aware of the potential for a female market for video games in the 1980s.

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Attention Trekkies: Star Trek Tridimensional Chess!

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Good to Go: Playful Ways to Get Around

It seems that now, perhaps more than ever, people everywhere are constantly on the go. Traveling to work or school, the gym, or the grocery store—the list goes on and on. We eat on the run, drink coffee on the run, and even get our information on the run thanks to smartphones that make emails, news, and calls available wherever we are. Today, many folks would tell you that life on the go is hectic but necessary. For a moment, let’s set the necessary aside and look at the more playful side of “things that go!” as children so frequently phrase it.

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“All Aboard!” for Fun with Trains

Growing up in Pennsylvania, my parents frequently looked for family excursions within a few hours’ drive from our home near Pittsburgh. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, became a frequent destination for the Novakovics, thanks in part to my younger brothers. Both Bobby and Billy loved reading the Thomas the Tank Engine series by Reverend W.

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Out of this World: A Brief History of the Yo-Yo

I remember my first yo-yo: a blue Duncan Imperial. I was 7 years old and had saved up enough of my allowance to buy it. The drive to the store felt like an eternity. When I finally opened the package, the bright, shiny yo-yo smelled of plastic and felt as smooth as ice—it was perfect. Back at home, I spent hours in the driveway playing with my new toy.

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Scott Adams Adventure International Collection Documents Early Commercial Computer Gaming

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When I Was a Kid: Adult Memories of Play

One of the great pleasures of working at The Strong is that every exhibit features a time portal back to childhood, most of which hold innumerable portals. No sooner does a visitor exclaim, “Oh! I had one of those when I was a kid!,” at the sight of Teddy Ruxpin before she is confronted by the Ms.

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